In 1700, European leaders faced a famine. An over-reliance on wheat and a rejection of the potato because it was strange and unappealing was leading to famine. Frederik the Great of Prussia set out to address the nation’s distaste by passing 15 orders aimed at driving the adoption and cultivation of the potato; these orders ultimately failed.
It was only when Frederik ordered his soldiers to visibly guard the local royal potato field, whilst subtly turning a blind eye to any theft, that things started to change. Suddenly potatoes were being stolen, grown and eaten in abundance.
With his success, Frederik provided the policy makers of the future with an anecdote of how the subtle art of persuasion, coupled with an innovator’s desire to test and learn, yielded better outcomes than the laws and sanctions of the past.
Systemic barriers to innovation
Calling upon fables of Kings to help modern organisations tackle the challenges of an increasingly complex and interconnected world may seem crude. However, parallels can be drawn between Frederik and us as humans and innovators in how we can overcome systemic barriers to innovation. To call on the recent RSA model, achieving impact requires us to adopt a ‘think like systems and act like entrepreneurs’ mindset. Like Frederik, we are not only required to understand the ‘system’ we are working within and the barriers that exist, but use our analysis of these problems to identify the most promising opportunities for working around them.
Whether it’s an effort to make Europeans eat potatoes, the first person to try and design travel by air or a consultant employed to deliver yet another transformation programme within an already strapped for cash National Health Hospital Trust, innovators face many barriers. These might be short-term ‘reasons why not’, such as the commonly cited ‘innovation alibis’ that Future Shaper Simon HIll speaks about in his latest article, or more fundamental barriers to the longer-term adoption of innovation which catapult ideas right back to square one.
Depending on the nature of the organisation, it may be the power dynamics and entrenched ‘command and control’ culture that becomes the biggest barrier to impact. Alongside this, regulatory frameworks, market readiness and procurement can also play a significant role in creating substantial barriers to effective change. Making time to analyse obstacles, whether they are a one-time problem or systemic and therefore likely to recur, may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many organisations skip this step and don’t take time to truly understand and plan to address these barriers.