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Innovating Management Innovation

The demand for management innovation is higher than ever, and innovators can address this need and opportunity by recognizing and surmounting the challenges that exist today.

Strategic management research aims to answer questions such as what drives firm behavior, what differentiates firms, and how this creates a competitive advantage. The answers to these questions are being reshaped by fundamental new challenges, such as the acceleration of new technologies and the rise of business ecosystems. As a result, the demand for innovation in strategic management is higher than ever.

However, a gap has arisen between theory and practice. While the field was historically integrated, with impactful ideas coming from academics, consultants, and practitioners, our recent survey indicates that today’s impactful innovations are mostly driven by businesses.

In our recent publication in the Strategic Management Review, we discuss the value of strategic management innovation, the blockages that contribute to the gap between theory and practice, and provide recommendations on how to overcome it.

The value of strategic management innovation and the importance of the learning cycle

Management innovation is an applied discipline — its primary aim should be to create ideas whose application improves the practice of management.

The generation of innovative management approaches embodies a learning cycle, in which (1) new needs are surfaced based on practitioners’ challenges; (2) innovators develop new ideas to address those challenges; (3) the ideas are communicated back to practitioners; and (4) they are tested out in practice. The circle continues as innovations are refined and amplified based on real-world feedback.

Frictions in the learning cycle and the gap between management innovators

Based on a survey of management innovators, we have identified 5 types of blockages and contextual inhibitors in the learning cycle.

1. Blockages in surfacing needs: Interchange between practitioners and innovators is required to identify needs from practice, but 76% of innovators said the level of interchange is inadequate today.

2. Blockages in developing ideas: Innovation creates value by serving the needs of practitioners, but it can often be treated as an end in itself, resulting in a lack of relevance. 84% of innovators said that a majority of academic strategy papers do not address issues that are relevant to practitioners.

3. Blockages in communicating ideas: 81% of innovators said that researchers do not generally communicate ideas effectively to practitioners.

4. Blockages in testing and feedback: The management innovation field lacks agreed-upon protocols to implement and measure the impact of ideas.

5. Contextual impediments: Some deeper structural factors contribute to these blockages in the learning cycle. First, innovators’ incentives are generally not aligned with creating maximal impact. Second, there are few convening forums that create an equal playing field for innovators and practitioners, leading to insufficient collaboration and communication. Third, there is often a gap between the language used by innovators and practitioners that inhibits the discussion of ideas in a mutually useful manner.

Recommendations for overcoming frictions and accelerating management innovation

For ideas to create impact, they must have relevance, rigor and accessibility — so that they can be understood, tested, and adopted by practitioners at scale. These three dimensions point to several actions that individuals and institutions can take to improve the practice of management innovation.

For individuals:

  • Get into the world. Innovators need to identify what needs are emerging from practitioners — which involves getting out into the world and engaging with managers and leaders.
  • Be phenomenon-driven. Another way to ensure relevance is to ground research in current phenomena.
  • Test ideas in practice. To ensure that innovations are rigorous, it is necessary to see how they work in the real world and refine them based on feedback.
  • Communicate at multiple levels. To give ideas the best chance of being adopted and amplified, innovators need to communicate their insights in a digestible manner.

For institutions:

  • Shift incentives. Innovators are often measured on their ability to impress other innovators. Institutions should also assess the engagement with or adoption of ideas.
  • Facilitate flow of people (and ideas). Impactful innovations often emerge when existing ideas are recombined, or when ideas are challenged from a new angle.
  • Create “trading zones.” Just as humans with different cultures, languages, and customs can come together to exchange goods if they agree on ground rules beforehand, so too can researchers or practitioners from different fields exchange ideas if they interact and develop a common language.
  • Expand reach. Individuals can adapt their own communication formats and styles to increase accessibility, but institutions that dream big may be able to design entirely new initiatives that boost reach even further. For example, they could develop an equivalent of TED for management science, convening the top innovators and practitioners.

The demand for management innovation is higher than ever, and innovators can address this need and opportunity by recognizing and surmounting the challenges that exist today — and in so doing rejuvenate the field of management innovation.

This article is a summary of a longer article. See our full publication on this topic in the Strategic Management Review (paywall).

Sources & Notes