Innovation Thinking – Robust to Resilient

Innovation Thinking - Robust to ResilientIt is always interesting how one ‘thing’ triggers another thought, and then you reflect and learn something that helps you add a new kernel of knowledge. This happened recently while looking at the discussion topic for an upcoming #innochat that happens every Thursday at noon EDT, 5pm UK time.

The question posed was “Innovation isn’t working! Is it time we innovate how we innovate.” The facilitator was Graham Hill (@GrahamHill) who attempted to moderate the flood of thoughts of 140 characters by anyone who wanted to participate. Everyone plowed in, offering thoughts or exchanges and for one hour parts of the question were ripped up and tossed around, other parts, the less tasty ones, were just left on the table. It was a twitter ‘feeding frenzy’ for people who are involved (or simply interested) in innovation matters. Fun, relevant and topical.

Graham chose to provide within his briefing paper a reference to Dave Snowden’s work. In this case from his Cognitive Edge Blog – “Moving from Robustness to Resilience – which initially surprised me, and then I really began to understand one important aspect that I thought I’d share here. Thanks Graham!

Innovation is in need of a step change in approach.

Anyone following this blog will see I have been arguing that innovation needed a better common framework. I have been collaborating with Jeffrey Phillips on this and have been putting forward the case over the past few weeks.

I strongly relate to Graham’s argument that:

“Innovation has a long and inglorious history of failure. According to common wisdom, over 80% of products fail on introduction into the market (some even claim 95%). And 60% of them fail again on re-introduction. But the problem isn’t the products; it’s the way we innovate. There has to be a better way. Our current innovation models were created for simple and complicated markets. Where understanding what customers need and plugging that into a linear innovation model was enough to drive winning innovation. Today’s markets are different. They are complex and increasingly, chaotic. The linear innovation model is no longer fit for purpose. We need to innovate how we innovate.”

The new learning from this for me is shifting to Resilience

Where Graham (well, actually Dave Snowden) has opened my eyes is with the move from the need to stop building ‘robust’ innovation models but shift this over into ‘resilient’ ones. If you have ever listened to one of Dave Snowden’s presentations, it can be scary. He has an amazing way to present and in every step of the way he builds an argument there lays a depth of knowledge. In this blog of his it is so ‘matter of fact’ it is worrying for us mere mortals. He is so annoying in the best possible way, as he is doing this all the time, shifting my thinking in the work that he and others do at Cognitive Edge. Some people that know David well, say he is just constantly challenging and people love to engage with him but you have to go well prepared. Oh I nearly forgot, if you are Welsh it can be easier. He does make you think.

Shifting My Thinking

In his ‘Risk to Resilient’ presentation I heard a set of important things that shift my thinking and advance it. We should refocus on building in more resilience into our approaches. In his case here, resilient systems:

  1. Robust systems try to avoid or prevent failure and can often become crippled in the event of the failure.
  2. Resilient systems accept that failure is inevitable.

If you move from focusing on prevention to:

  1. Early detection
  2. Fast recovery
  3. The opportunity, early exploitation (think Silicon Valley)

Dave Snowden highlights the strategic importance for organizations to refocus on the creation of resilient systems. This has real importance for innovation.

Failure is Inevitable

He goes into a Probable > Possible > Plausible for event failure and the triggering of anticipatory awareness and this presentation is very valuable to listen through a couple of times.

Why does this shift my thinking?

Well in a number of ways. I certainly need to down play the robustness and build up the aspects of resilience more to encourage more risk and creativity in innovation design.


  • First – I have always ‘pushed’ for robust systems of innovation and this presentation causes me to reflect on this approach. To some degree you underline ‘fear’ to reduce failure so you consistently set about reducing this risk. Ideas that started with a real flash of insight come out the other end no more than a ‘damp squib’ that is more incremental and not as ‘disruptive’ as initially intended. They need to be ‘robust’ to survive or just more resilient?
  • Second – robust systems fit well with financial people, with the ‘counters and controllers’ of this world. It give them a better sense of identity that innovation can be ‘well’ managed.
  • Third – robustness works with Six Sigma, with process efficiency experts and the more you can manage the system’s characteristic behavior the less uncertainty you can have.
  • Fourth – robustness is often associated with being strong and healthy, hardy and vigorous, with the opposite as seen as weak and feeble
  • Last – robustness is often associated with accountability, keeping everyone responsive but due to the often ‘rigidness’ built into the system, we do suffer sometimes spectacular failures. As Dave Snowden says “we become crippled in the event of it”.


  • I do think we are all looking more and more at building into our systems, into our own personalities a greater resilience. We have to absorb more; in complexity, in events, in our personal energy
  • We do need to recover more from failure, as failure is inevitable, to adjust to a misfortune or sudden change. We need to deal with difficult changing market conditions more than ever, to cope with adversity.
  • This coping may result in the individual or the organizations ability in “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected, to learn from the failure.
  • Some different research shows that resilience is the result of individuals interacting with their environments and the processes that either promote well-being or protect them against the overwhelming influence of risk factors. (Wikipedia quote).

Building Resilience into Innovation Systems

We need to enhance resilience for innovation management. Closely linked to resilience is adaptive capacity, our ability as humans to deal with change in their environment by observation, learning and altering their interactions in response to changing (market) conditions. It is harder to adapt a robust system.

So resilience leads to responsiveness, listening to the market and customer needs, adapting what we have learned and being ‘resilient’ in altering what we do to deliver the specific need. Being ‘adaptive’ is critical to innovation

Dave Snowden finishes with this in this presentation of the differences between robust and resilient:

“The future belongs to companies, and to organizations and to governments who recognize the need for strategic agility and with that comes an approach based on resilience rather than robustness.”

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft is recognized for his consistency to champion and informs on innovation. He focuses on building innovation capacity, competencies, and capabilities and promotes innovation in informative, creative and knowledgeable ways, piecing together the broader understanding of innovation. Paul continually constructs a series of novel and relevant frameworks to help advance this innovation understanding and writes mainly through his posting site of where he regularly publishes his thinking and research based on solutions that underpin his advisory, coaching and consulting work at




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