Learning to innovate

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By Jody Salway

ISM Canada

In the pic: Phil Budden and Jody Salway. Phil is a Senior Lecturer at MIT's Management School, in Sloan's TIES (Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic-management) Group, where he focuses on 'innovation-driven entrepreneurship' (IDE) and innovation ecosystems.

There are many who think you are either born with it, or you aren’t

More than ever, I’m convinced that’s not the case.  It is possible to learn how to innovate.  I recently had the opportunity to learn about the Innovation Ecosystem as a student of the MIT Innovation ecosystem for Leaders: A new Approach to  Accelerate Corporate Innovation. It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Creating an ecosystem for innovation

Markets these days, due to technology, are being disrupted at a speed at which business has never experienced before. Companies are quickly discovering that going it alone is no longer an option and they have their eye towards building a broader ecosystem to advance their competitive strengths.

The challenge in today’s market is that problems are no longer well defined, they are intangible, and often rooted in enhancing an existing product, service or experience, without really understanding what (if anything) is actually wrong with the status quo.  An innovation ecosystem is suited for situations where the problems and solutions are still being sorted out. 

Building the right ecosystem for innovation needs to define the “battlespace “or the area to be explored, all while keeping it relatively general. From there you assemble the ecosystem to explore the challenges and refine it as the understanding of the opportunity evolves.

You can’t go it alone

Courtesy: MIT

Courtesy: MIT

Engaging the right balance of stakeholders in your ecosystem is critical to generating optimal results:

  • Government: they will be able to significantly influence policy and strategic programs at a higher level

  • Entrepreneurs: they work collaboratively with other stakeholders within their entrepreneur ecosystem

  • Risk Capital: they ensure that qualified entrepreneurs have access to capital and help build strong risk capital networks

  • Corporate: they are responsible for the relationships with the various starts-ups in the region, and/or help entrepreneurs through mentorship or investment

  • University: they will be focused on the process of fleshing out ideas and getting them ready to bring to market

At the core, these uncommon partners help the company navigate new and unfamiliar terrain. Inherent in this approach is the challenge that most of these stakeholders will have never worked together.  As you can imagine, with any new group coming together, there will be a settle-in period where everyone works out their style, role and approach. 

Additionally, the company that orchestrates will also have to be the glue that gives the ecosystem its infrastructure and holds it in place. The Innovation Ecosystem should be considered adaptive in nature.  It is this adaptability that drives a significant source of value.

While not all ecosystems will lead to successful innovation, they do however provide companies with opportunities to transform both the way they do business and how they innovate.


Personally, I see the development of the Innovation Ecosystem as a jumping off point. It inspires me to bring new ways of innovating to ISM Canada and to the customers I work with. Without even having known about the model, through our work with various Canadian stakeholders, we unknowingly put the Innovation Ecosystem to work on a pivotal PTSD research project.

Systematic innovation is quickly becoming a core competency for many of the world’s leading companies, and those who are unable to develop this skill will have challenges with remaining relevant and competitive.