To drive innovation, you must understand your ecosystem

An innovation ecosystem’s many elements must work in sync for growth to happen, write Cris Beswick, Dan Toma and Ricardo Vargas

In 1878 Leo Tolstoy released what would become one of his most acclaimed works, the novel ‘Anna Karenina‘. The book started with a quote that over the centuries has transcended disciplines: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

When taken literally, the quote is a good reflection on family life and family conduct. But as a metaphor, the quote has found application in different fields, from anthropology to ecology, and from philosophy now to business.

The quote became the Anna Karenina Principle, with its popularisation by Jared Diamond in his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. In the book, the principle illustrates why – throughout human history – so few wild animals have been successfully domesticated. A deficiency in any one of a high number of factors can render a species not able to be tamed. Therefore, all successfully domesticated species are not so because of a particular positive trait, but because of a lack of any number of possible negative characteristics. The Anna Karenina Principle can be summed up as: a deficiency in any one of several factors dooms an endeavour to failure – consequently, a successful effort (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided or overcome.

With more and more businesses understanding the importance of building innovation ecosystems to ensure sustainable future growth, the Anna Karenina Principle comes to the forefront again in the context of improving or changing these ecosystems.

An innovation ecosystem consists of many elements, all of which need to work in sync for growth to happen. Through our pioneering work around innovation maturity, we’ve concluded that when clustering the many ecosystem elements, you typically end up with five core pillars: strategyleadershipmanagementculture and processes. Understanding if any of the components of these pillars is hindering the progress and outcome of the ecosystem becomes paramount when it comes to making improvements or changes. Think of the ecosystem improvement strategy in terms of a sat-nav system in a car. Sat-nav systems are great when they work, but there are times when the link is down, the signal fails, or the reading is off, and the journey can turn into a random game of mystery-road pinball. Or to put it another way, you know where you want to get to, but unless your starting point is clear then any proposed route and any stops along the way are simply guesswork, or in innovation parlance, unproven assumptions!

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