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Baking a ‘sourdough’ loaf of innovation

It seems like everyone enjoys the taste of freshly baked sourdough bread, but not too many people do it well. The sane holds true for innovation

During COVID lockdown, baking sourdough became a ‘thing’ that many people dabbled in.  The disruption of being stuck at home encouraged people to get back to baking, including trying their hands at sourdough bread.  More complex that simply stirring a few ingredients together, Sourdough became somewhat of a social media phenomenon with people engaging in humble bragging about their successes and sharing recipes.  However, as lockdown dragged on it dropped out of favour.  People were still happy to enjoy sourdough loaves but were no longer investing the time or effort to make it happen in their own kitchen.

This is a powerful metaphor for innovation – in the face of continuing change we all want to have innovation in our own ‘kitchen’, but we are so busy getting on with everything else that it is unlikely to invest the time and effort to even allow it to happen.

How is innovation like baking sourdough?

  • They both need a starter, a recipe, ingredients and a decision about what you are wanting to ‘bake’.
  • Things have to happen in the right order, with the right timing and preparation to be successful
  • There can be a lot of effort for something which is rapidly consumed
  • To keep baking, you have to keep nurturing the ‘starter’. If it dies, you cannot get sourdough.

Understanding innovation in busy businesses

Innovation requires positive change opportunities to be recognised and activated in highly complex situations, in the face of the pressure of status quo as well as the constant force of external change.

People do not want to change, even if the outcome may seem to an external observer to be obviously better off for them.  This status quo pressure comes from the desire for certainty and people will prioritise certainty and safety over progress more often than not.

In the face of external change, people are constantly forced to adapt just to remain ‘stable’.  The effort that it takes to maintain the status quo can sometimes be overwhelming (consider how people have been impacted by the COVID related changes, for example).

How is innovation like baking sourdough?

Organisations and individuals may want to innovate – in fact, to avoid disruption they probably have to innovate – however these pressures work to make it an effortful and challenging process to get right.  Like sourdough baking, it requires those specific elements:

  • A starter – the culture and conditions in which innovation is valued, and people recognise the advantage in investing in potentially dead-end ideas on the chance that innovation may occur.
  • The right ingredients – An area of ‘friction’ that wants to be ‘fixed’, associative learning networks, a culture of sharing, resources and time to explore options, management that encourages such exploration.
  • Things happening in the right order and time – an internal process that allows iteration, exploration, experimentation. Ideas promoted and implementation of innovation seen as critical business activities.

All of this suggests that if you want innovation in your own kitchen, you have to approach baking it with an understanding that there is investment, preparation, effort and potential failure involved.  If your organisation is not comfortable with this, then don’t expect any tasty loaves of innovation to come from your ovens.

What can you do to enjoy home baked innovation?

Here are some tips to help you create sourdough quality innovation in your own business.

  • Consciously consider your culture. Are you busy in the ‘hamster wheel’, or do you create space for people to reflect, discuss, explore and experiment?  A business that is too ‘lean’ and efficient is not geared to innovate.
  • Do you value success, or learning? They create different outcomes (risk aversion versus experimentation)
  • Do you have innovation processes for creation, capture, escalation, implementation? Without all the phases of innovation properly managed, it would be like baking with the oven turned off.  You will end up with nothing at the end.
  • Do you have a clear purpose and mission for the business, including a deep insight process for customer? Only then can you truly understand why you are innovating and how it fits into being better (and avoiding disruption).

If you want to understand innovation as a deep and powerful driver of business success -and set it to ‘bake’ in your own kitchen – then building a starter, putting all the ingredients on the table and using the right equipment at the right time and the right way will lead to a loaf you can enjoy.  Like sourdough, it cannot be rushed.

At, we specialise in adaptive change.  This means creating and utilising innovation to enhance your success.  If you want to find out more, contact me directly to see what we could do to help you bake up something special for you to get ahead.

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