The 10 critical characteristics of organisational innovation

Paul Aladenika
5 min readJun 25, 2023
Image courtesy of Liam Charmer on Unsplash

At its best, innovation can open a world of opportunity for organisations brave enough to embrace it. With innovation, alongside greater choice and increased efficiency, there is the tantalising possibility of a competitive edge. The relentless pursuit of something better can also be a thrill-seekers charter, attracting those with sharp intellect and boundless creative capacity to apply their minds to the most challenging problems.

As this blog sets out, innovation is not just a creative process, critically it is also state of mind. When organisations think big and dream dreams, they create space for their workforce to think and dream along with them. It is in the dynamic thought-space that innovation is birthed.

With the context set, described below are the 10 critical characteristics of organisational innovation.

1. Imperative

An imperative is what makes organisational innovation possible. It is the compelling reason or necessity for doing something rather than nothing. In project management speak, this scenario is described as the ‘burning platform’ or the ‘change or die reflex’. The critical point about imperative is that it should never be a reaction to events, but rather a logical conclusion, informed by pre-determined measures of critical risk and a preponderance of evidence. This will ensure that an organisation’s situational response is proportionate.

2. Impatience

Impatience is the oxygen of innovation. As such, whenever organisations find themselves in ‘oxygen rich’ environments, they innovate. Truly great innovation is underpinned by a discontent with the status quo, the constraints of bureaucracy and the routine of going through the motions. It is impatience that sparks desire, builds momentum and sustains the pace of change. When organisations become impatient, they deny themselves the refuge of a comfort zone. Instead, they become nomadic, constantly redefining boundaries, rewriting rules, and leading with ‘why’.

3. Impulsivity

Ordinarily, impulsivity is associated with recklessness and the risk of avoidable error. However, in the context of innovation, impulsivity is to be encouraged and even celebrated. Fundamentally, an organisation’s impulse speaks to its responsiveness in the face of challenges. If things are not working, is the organisational impulse to be impassive and resign itself to shoulder shrugging complacency or is does it become restless for change? Similarly, faced with the stimuli of external competition, an organisation’s impulse will reveal its survival instinct.

4. Inquisitiveness

In the context of innovation, inquisitiveness is more than a curiosity to know things, it represents persistence. When an organisation is persistent, its approach to learning, improvement and development is relentless, whilst its appetite for growth is insatiable. Inquisitive organisations present themselves as forward leaning and challenging. Taken together, these characteristics are essential for creating the culture and climate for innovation. Inquisitive organisations are on a constant journey of discovery.

5. Intuition

Although not always logical, intuition is not irrational. Every great innovation is shaped, in part, by a gut organisational instinct or feel. Intuition also demonstrates an understanding of good timing and an appreciation of risk. Logic dictates that a great idea for today, is for today. Intuition dictates that it may be a better idea for tomorrow. As a counterweight to both impulse and over-rationalisation, intuition has a stabilising effect on the decision-making process. It does not ignore evidence or facts, but rather recognises that empirical evidence must leave room for an anecdotal view.

6. Insight

Insight empowers organisations to better understand what works, under what conditions and for whom. In the innovation space, insight is used to pattern spot, identify interdependencies and weigh up probabilities. However, in mature organisations, insight is not just a knowledge product that informs innovation, it is the very state of mind and cultural context that drives it. When insight and innovation complement each other most effectively, they reflect an organisation’s intellect, express its value system and empower its problem solvers.

7. Ideas

Ideas are the seeds of organisational innovation. They are the problem-solving building blocks of radical transformation. In times of crisis, it is to those able to think out of the box, that organisations look to for leadership. Ideas provide the basis for discussion, set the parameters for exploration and facilitate the process of change. Ideas are not a top-down construct. Rather, they flourish in environments where people are empowered with the permission to try and the right to fail and where autonomy for action is disseminated to those best placed to know best.

8. Improvisation

Improvisation is the art of survival. An organisation with the capacity for improvisation can solve complex problems, at short notice with limited resources. When organisations improvise, they often do so whilst being nimble on their feet. In the most challenging of circumstances, improvisation requires risk-taking, confidence and decisiveness. If indeed the ‘burning platform’ is the compelling case to act, then an organisation with the capacity for quick-thinking can transform the ‘burning platform’ into a life raft.

9. Investment

With organisational innovation, investment has an important two-fold meaning. Firstly, it represents the cumulative of time, effort and financial outlay that is required to get ideas off the ground and translate them into viable initiatives. Secondly, investment represents a statement of value and a commitment to prioritisation. When an organisation invests in innovation, it communicates a message of essentiality. It makes clear that innovation is a critical part of an organisation’s personality, character and culture.

10. Incubation

Incubation is the time it takes for an idea to mature into an innovation. The process of incubation allows for testing, modification and re-testing. This attention to quality management and control, helps organisations to evaluate the viability of an idea and focus on what the late Steve Jobs described as: ‘making great product’. An organisation’s approach to incubation, not only reveals its commitment to the realisation of ideas, but just as importantly a wider commitment to safeguarding and cultivating thought leadership.

Clearly, organisational innovation is a broad spectrum, not a narrow lens. As such, there are many factors that contribute to it, over and above those highlighted in this blog. Notwithstanding, there is a foundation on which it should be built and without which, it cannot be conceived or actualised. Perhaps the over-arching message of the above is that the business climate and atmosphere within an organisation is crucial. This is because before anything else, innovation is mindset, an orientation and a way of thinking. As such it is only possible for an organisation to do innovation when they think innovation.

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Paul Aladenika

Believer, TEDx speaker, host of The 11th Thing Podcast, blogger, mentor, student of leadership, social economist & thinker. Creator of www.believernomics.com .