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Professor Christopher May
Professor of Political Economy, Lancaster University
Professor Christopher May

Innovation as a mind-set – six key components

Authors: Professor Christopher May Professor Christopher May, Professor of Political Economy, Lancaster University

09 December 2013

So what actually is innovation? If we are going to get people to research it, and to develop innovation as practice, we need to have an idea of what it might be. To explore this question, I met with a small focus group of  partners of The Work Foundation  recently to see how we all understood the idea; our conversation ranged across private and public sectors and covered services and manufacturing. I thought it might be useful to share this with a few more people and see if anyone had any views about whether we were on the right track Tell me what you think: is this broadly right? Have we missed something important? Are things different in your organisation?
In our discussion we concluded that, innovation:

  • does not need to be perfect; 80% is often good enough. Innovation is relative, it may not be new, but may put existing ideas/approaches into new contexts

  • challenges the status quo by questioning assumptions; innovation will often be a challenge to those who do not ‘see’ the need  
  • is a way of doing things differently, including new ways or methods of using existing resources, levering new (or previously unrecognised) resources, and/or responding to limited or declining resources; it may be open - sharing and co-creation are important innovative ways of innovating, allowing novel links to be expanded through open and free knowledge exchange

  • is a process (not a one-shot game) & will be fast (and has a short ‘half-life’); timing is crucial (innovations may be early or late but will be most successful when the time is right!)

  • must be everyone’s responsibility and needs to be embedded into organisational culture and practice through capacity building for innovation; this requires leadership and an attack on complacency, but also needs trust within teams; successful organisations find ways of making innovation ‘business as usual’

  • includes exposure to higher levels of risk than business as usual and may require a leap of faith until metrics can be understood; however failure can be as important as success to the development of an innovation (learn from mistakes, but recognise them early & amend/change quickly)

There are many interpretations of 'innovation’ out there  but we all thought these themes indicated what was general about innovation as a mind-set
Of course it’s easy to say all of the above, but the real trick is getting people in your organisation to embrace innovation. Innovation is a way of working, a way of being and supporting it may require organisations to rethink how they organise their everyday practices. There may also be problems of tempo – different parts of the organisation, and different partners work to different speeds and expectations about the time-scale of innovation; this is to say, innovative ideas may have very different shelf-lives in different organisations or sectors, and this is certainly what we found among our sample of Work Foundation partners.

This is what our new programme will aim  to address: how can organisations find ways of moving to a situation where innovation is encompassed with all its challenges while also recognising that after innovation there must be consolidation? The trick must be to recognise how these two factors interact and how this interaction can be channelled to allow organisations to become agile and resilient. Thus, our programme will look to develop ways for organisations to engage with others who have different timescales or foci allowing innovation to spring form unexpected places. I’ll return to these themes in the New Year but please do get in touch if anything above strikes a chord.

If you want to follow my musings more regularly I have a twitter feed  @chrismayLU where you can see what I am thinking about on a daily basis, and if you want to have a look at what I do in my research work, I have a page on And if you would like to email me, my email address is