The Innovation Iceberg

3 June 2016 - 3:16pm
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Saul Brown

Getting below the surface to the real work of innovation.

The iceberg is a common metaphor used to explore the dynamics of groups. Ninety per cent of what is going on is underwater. Mobilising groups for innovation requires leadership equipped with a mask and snorkel. Yet most focus above the surface on a technical approach, planning and process and the like, and wonder why it all becomes too hard. Those that can get under the surface a little and work with the social and political dynamics more often find a way to muddle through.

Most organisations that we work with at SLA have or have had specific innovation initiatives or strategies. The vast majority fail to achieve their desired objectives or get shelved as they run out of steam.

This is of course true across all sectors and understandable given the complex nature of change - innovation being a unique type of change where the end point is necessarily undefined.

For several years I worked on postgraduate research into the determinants of successful innovation until ironically I ran out of steam.

The researchers globally that have the most helpful lens in terms of examining innovation are looking at innovation from a biological evolutionary perspective – they call themselves evolutionary organisational theorists.

It is beautiful work; planting seeds of new growth, observing the patterns of emergence, variation, and the natural competition between variations that create successful innovation.

My years of research coincided with the emergence of design thinking as a popular innovation process in Australia and globally and I became an enthusiastic practitioner. Over the past decade I have seen design thinking mature to the point that most organisations that developed unique capability teams have either abandoned them or integrated them as core capability, depending on whether the adaptation was a successful one or not. For most not – as you would expect.

The point that has been of most interest to me is observing that those that are achieving most with their innovation efforts are the teams and organisations innovating themselves.

The design thinking process and the behaviour set that comes codified with it (collaboration, creativity, empathy, experimentation) when harnessed effectively helps. Which brings us back to the iceberg. 

At SLA much of our work uses the adaptive leadership framework to build capacity for leadership in the face of complex challenges. Specifically we work with the social and political dynamics below the waterline to help organisations make progress on their toughest challenges. For us, the integration of adaptive leadership and design thinking makes a lot of sense for working both above and below the surface.


Saul Brown is an associate of SLA. He specialises in working with leaders and teams to help them navigate innovation and change. He has more than twenty-five years experience as a leader, innovator, consultant and educator working with large corporates, start-ups, all levels of government and the not-for-profit sectors. Saul has been recognised for excellence in the design and delivery of executive education programs at Australia’s leading graduate school of management.  

Join Saul Brown at our 2 day Mobilising Social Innovation Masterclass in Sydney on 10-11 August.