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Quo Vadis:
Where does an innovative company go next?

David Straker

-- Introduction -- Level 1 -- Level 2 -- Level 3 -- Level 4 -- Level 5 --
-- Limitations/future -- References --


When a company is already well known for its innovation, yet is faced with constantly increasing market pressures, where does it go? This paper offers an understanding of innovation based on five maturity levels.

The five levels of innovation maturity

This paper describes five levels of innovation maturity which can be used to both assess the current position of a company and to show the way forward.


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
1 Suppressed Opposing Displacement None / product
2 Enabled Ignoring Skunkworks Near
3 Encouraged Supporting Analytic / intuition Process
4 Educated Training, structure Tools, skill Distant
5 Enlightened Deep understanding Appropriate Strategic


To transition from each level requires a cultural shift to create and sustain the change the behaviours that are implicitly required for the next level of innovation maturity. Each of these maturity levels is described in the sections below.

Level 1: Suppressed


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
1 Suppressed Opposing Displacement None / product


Frederick Taylor both advanced and froze management thinking with his ‘scientific management’ that focused solely on the task, relegating the worker to the machine. It is perhaps not surprising that Taylor was himself psychologically stunted will all the hallmarks of a disturbed, neurotic, anal-compulsive personality2. His very focus on efficiency blinded him to the inhumanity of many of his proposals, which were deeply unpopular even in his own day.


Yet Taylor’s legacy persists, despite the real and well-publicised concerns highlighted by people such as Douglas McGregor3 (Theory X and Theory Y) and Hertzberg4 (Motivation-Hygiene theory). Perhaps it is because it appeals so much to our deep needs for control that many managers still stubbornly resist the notion that people can successfully think for themselves. It also is alluringly attractive for managers to assume that they have greater wisdom and creative ability than their charges. The notion of their subordinates having greater intelligence can be perceived as a threat to be suppressed rather than a skill to be encouraged.


Going further back, the blame might even be laid at the door of the Christian church, where the constraints of the scriptures and their interpretation by a controlling clergy forbade innovation for many centuries. In 1634, Galileo was forced to recant his heresy about the place of the Earth in the firmament thus:


“I Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner on my knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse and detest the errors and the heresy of the movement of the earth.”5


This ‘Management by Fear’ results in creative abilities being displaced either towards disruptive activities such as strikes and other unhelpful actions or in hobbies outside the workplace which range from flower-arranging to fly fishing. W. Edwards Deming’s exhortation to management to ‘Drive out fear’6 is a critical first step towards bringing innovation into the workplace.


What official innovation there is in such Suppressed companies, is very largely product-oriented, contained and focused inwards. Individuals using innovation of any kind are also likely to keep it to themselves, for fear of punishment for stepping outside the rules.

Level 2: Enabled


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
2 Enabled Ignoring Skunkworks Near


In an organisation where innovation is Enabled, the basic culture contains rules that give permission to be creative, but provide limited assistance or direction with the task. This seems a small step, but it can have a powerful effect on the innovation within companies. Many significant innovations have come from unofficial projects where people were simply allowed to continue work on pet projects.


The ‘skunkworks’, popularised by Peters and Waterman is an example of enabled ‘official unofficial’ work, where people are allowed to work on projects either in their own time or outside of the main research activity.


“Last year a major corporate product bombed. A skunk works member asked for and got permission to take two samples home and set them up in his basement. He used one as a benchmark. He tinkered with the other for about three weeks and corrected virtually all of the flaws (with nickel and dime items), actually improving performance over original design specs by a factor of three. The president visited the basement and approved design changes on the spot.” 8


Skunkworks and indeed most innovation in the Enabled organisation seem to work largely through intrinsic motivation. As Kohn9 has shown, promised reward is neither a motivator nor any guarantee for innovative success. The impoverished conditions of the typical skunkworks seems to be an important ingredient for creativity. Finke et al.10 report on increased creativity when conditions are restricted and Fritz11 describes the power of creative tension as internally generated desire pulls people forward.


For such private projects to work, the domain of innovation needs to be close to the skills and interests of the people working on them. Innovating to order in more distant fields is neither of interest nor practical at this maturity level, where managers studiously ignore much innovation activity, allowing people to come up with ideas on their own.

Level 3: Encouraged


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
3 Encouraged Supporting Analytic / intuition Process


At the level of Encouraged innovation, the creative skills of most people in the organisation are actively sought as the viewpoint around innovation has expanded from a primarily product focus to wider work processes.


Many companies reached this level in the late 80s and early to mid 90s, when the recession of the time, along with increasing need to offer quality as a basic, essential forced serious work in changing the culture to a more humanistic, empowered environment. Total Quality Management12 was the ‘fad’ that triggered many such change efforts. It really was a great effort for many organisations as they tried to vault directly from a Suppressed organisation to the Encouraged level of maturity.


Innovation at this level often follows analytic work. The classic quality improvement project involves measuring the process, analysing to find root causes and then finding an innovative solution to fix the underlying problem (for example as in Straker13).


The primary tool that is commonly used here is classic Brainstorming–which is often used incorrectly, typically collecting a few logical ideas, rather than being a wide-ranging exploration of creative possibilities. Few people who use or facilitate brainstorming have ever read Alex Osborn’s original work14, and fewer still abide by his rules. It also comes as a surprise to many people that Brainstorming as is commonly practised can be less efficient than individual critical thinking.


"An extensive body of research shows that for both quality and creativity, brainstorming groups seldom are more effective, and certainly less efficient than individuals–even when redundant ideas by individuals are not counted."15


Still, the TQM activity has resulted in major gains for a significant number of companies (although there has also been the usual crop of casualties along the path of change). The dilemma that many of these companies now face is that they have done the easy work, having picked the low-hanging fruit amongst their business problems. They are now left with difficult problems and short-lived advantage as global competition continues to escalate.


“The workplace is demanding more innovation and creativity. That’s a fundamental shift from five years ago, when the focus was on reengineering and efficiency.” 16


In some ways, it is possible for this level to become a retrogressive step from the previous level, if the intrinsic motivation of the Enabled organisation is replaced by reward for improvements made. Well-meaning compensation of a proportion of costs saved has resulted in large payouts and a focus on the immediate reward rather than the longer-term and whole-company benefits.

 Level 4: Educated


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
4 Educated Training, structure Tools, skill Distant


At the Educated level of maturity, innovation is a critical agenda in its own right, sufficiently so to warrant direct expenditure on training and for the domain of focus to expand to include other areas of the company’s interest. People are now being asked to help the whole company with ideas, rather than just to improve their limited part of it, as in the previous stage, consequently the creative domain might be more distant from the creator than previous maturity levels. For example, a receptionist might sit in a marketing creative session, adding hybrid vigour with ideas such as how to make customers feel comfortable when starting to use new products.


To increase creative and innovative skills, people are trained on a range of tools and techniques, either to stimulate general creative thinking or for specific use in creative problem solving. There are several schools of thought, each with books and training courses ready and waiting in the wings, including de Bono17, Synectics18 and Osborn’s legacy organisation, the Creative Education Foundation19.


In many ways the transition from Encouraged to Educated is not as difficult as previous transitions as it requires limited cultural change, although being creative may require a more significant change in openness than was previously permissible in the company culture. This is mitigated by the tendency at this level to constrain the creative thinking to specific problem-solving sessions, where the psychological safety and freedom20 required may be controlled by a trained facilitator.


A problem at this stage is that, when working in groups, people who have not been trained in the approaches are likely to find it difficult to pick up the new methods on the fly, especially where different modes of thinking are required. The trained people may also be inhibited by the presence of the untrained people.

Level 5: Understood


Level no Level name Management style Individual approach Critical domain
5 Enlightened Deep understanding Appropriate Strategic


To maximally achieve in any activity requires getting back to the fundamentals of how things work. Athletes study physiology, artists study light and materials, and people who wish to develop real creativity and innovation in their organizations must ultimately study psychology and neurology in order to truly understand how creative thinking works.


Factors that need to be taken into account include:

  • Personal change. It is a difficult task to study and change oneself, as this is first-order change from within. To make a lasting, second order change to ourselves requires that they step outside and look back in21

  • Psychological blocks. Adams22 and others have listed many internal and external factors that act to reduce our creative potential, from environmental and cultural blocks onwards.

  • Deep drivers, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of prepotence23 and Argyris’ Model 1 Theory in Use24, which tend to make us less creative and the double-loop learning that is required to help us get out of the mire.

  • The effects of early childhood and education, and models that help to understand this, such as Transactional Analysis25.

  • Various other dysfunctional psychological effects around decision-making, such as Risk bias, Negativity bias and Confirmation bias15.

  • Interpersonal psychological effects of working in groups, including groupthink26, risky shift15 and leader dependency27.

  • Effects of personality type, such as Kirton’s Adaptor-Innovator (KAI) 28.

  • Internal modes of thinking that result both in creative ideas and ways to carry these through to practical applications. Creative people have been studied in depth and from various angles, and their mental strategies are available for adoption from a number of authors29, 30, 31.

  • The deeper cognitive effects of various stimuli such as preinventive forms31.


Does this mean we all need to become Ph.D’s in psychology? Not really. Psychological principles have long been a part of management training. All that is required is to direct and enhance this education to include those factor which will act to increase the creative ability and application within the organisation.

Limitations of the maturity model

As W. Edwards Deming said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful” Maturity is a useful model, but we cannot simply push an organisation into a box marked ‘Level 2’ without recognising the limitations that this categorisation brings.


The maturity of an organisation is an aggregate of the maturity of its individual members. Skills and abilities do not diffuse instantly across a company and individuals are known to accept change at different rates33. Innovation diffuses according to a number of factors34, such as social position and the ability to understand new concepts. There is also more direct need for innovation in functions such as R&D than in some other areas, resulting in a natural imbalance in the attention to creativity and innovation.


As a result, there is a distribution of innovation maturity across groups and organisations, and the numerical ‘innovation maturity’ of the organisation is an average. If the standard deviation of that distribution is high, then a single numerical maturity level is probably not a good measure of the company in question.


Nevertheless, the model is a useful paradigm for understanding parts of the organisation and identifying actions required to transform individual entities to the required level of innovative ability.

Directions for future research

The maturity model of innovation is proposed as a conceptual framework, with a goal of helping to identify actual innovation style and to guide future activity in this area. How useful this is in practice will only come through active experimentation and research.


The effects of different distributions of innovation maturity distribution in organisations and groups are probably little understood and there may be some merit in investigating this area.


Perhaps the most intractable area for many organisations is in the more general management of change, that is, the transitions between the maturity levels. In the academic field we often skip straight to the ‘understanding’ level, but people organisations are not (perhaps by definition), that clever. This also raises the question of whether organisations have to go through each level, and if they do not, how the transition process differs.


Methods for measuring innovative tendencies and abilities have been well researched28, 35 and there is probably little requirement for further investigation, although one or more of these instruments may be used in the above research.


1. Crosby, Philip, Quality is Free, Mentor Books, New York, 1979

2. Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organisations, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA, 1986

3. McGregor, Douglas, ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’ in Adventures in Thought and Action, Proceedings of the Fifth Anniversary Convocation of the School of Industrial Management, MIT, 1957, pp. 23-30

4. Hertzberg, Frederick, Work and the Nature of Man, World Publishing Company, 1966

5. David Milsted, They Got it Wrong (The Guiness Dictionary of Regrettable Quotations), Guiness Publishing, London, 1995

6. Walton, Mary, The Deming Management Method, Perigree Books, NY, 1986

7. Packard, Dave, The HP Way, HarperBusiness, 1995

8. Peters, Tom and Waterman, Robert, In Search of Excellence, Harper and Row, NY, 1982

9. Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards, Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1995

10. Finke, Ronald A, Ward, Thomas B, Smith, Steven M, Creative Cognition (theory, research and applications), MIT Press, 1996

11. Fritz, Robert, The Path of Least Resistance, Fawcett Columbine, NY, 1984

12. Oakland, John, Total Quality Management, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1989

13. Straker, David, A Toolbook for Quality Improvement and Problem Solving, Prentice Hall, 1995

14. Osborn, Alex, Applied Imagination (Third Edition), Scribner, NY, 1963

15. Beach, Lee Roy, The Psychology of Decision Making, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1997

16. What Money Makes You Do, Fortune, August 17, 1988, page 79

17. de Bono, Edward, Serious Creativity, HarperCollins, London, 1992

18. Ceserani, Jonne and Greatwood, Peter, Innovation and Creativity, Kogan Page, London, 1995

19. Isaksen, Scott, Dorfal, K. Brian and Treffinger, Donald, Creative Approaches to Problem Solving, Creative Problem Solving Group, Buffalo, NY, 1994

20. Rogers, Carl, Towards a Theory of Creativity, in P. E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity, Penguin Books, Harmonsworth, UK, 1970

21. Watzlawick, Paul, Weakland, John and Fisch, Richard, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, W. W. Norton and Company, NY, 1974

22. Adams, James L., Conceptual Blockbusting (Third edition), Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1986

23. Maslow, Abraham  H., Motivation and Personality (Third edition), Harper and Row, NY, 1970

24. Argyris, Chris and Schön, Donald, Organisational Learning II, Addison Wesley, Reading, MA, 1996

25. Harris, Thomas A., I’m OK, You’re OK, Pan Books, London, 1970

26. Janis, I, Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1982

27. Bion, A, Experiences in Groups and other Papers, Tavistock, London, 1961

28. Kirton, Michael J., Adaptors and Innovators: A description and measure, Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, 1976, pages 622–629

29. Dilts, Robert B., Epstein, Todd and Dilts, Robert W., Tools for Dreamers, Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1991

30. Gardner, Howard, Creating Minds, BasicBooks, NY, 1993.

31. Shekerjian, Denise, Uncommon Genius, Penguin Books, NY, 1990

32. Gordon, William J. J, Synectics, Harper & Row, NY, 1963

33. Connor, Darryl, Managing at the Speed of Change, Villard Books, 1993

34. Rogers, Everett, Diffusion of Innovations, The Free Press, 1962

35. Miller, W. C., Validation of the Innovation Styles Profile, Global Creativity Corporation, CA, 1986

36. Amabile, Theresa M., How to Kill Creativity, Harvard Business Review, September/October 1998, pages 76 to 87.

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