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Innovation – the Art of Knitting with Fog

Knitting with Fog – Understand and accelerate innovation capability

Innovation acceleration, capability and capacity growth

Innovation is an over-used word and a poorly understood concept in South Africa. This is a pity, as innovation has the ability to accelerate the creation or improvement of new products, services and processes. Social, technical, economic, and other advantages could accrue to our country and peoples.

Innovation is undermined by wrong thinking. Let’s pursue better implementation and results.

Innovation has been described by a sibling of mine as, “knitting with fog.”

This is a decidedly apt description in at least two ways:

 Firstly, innovation relies on us catching the thoughts which flit and fly across our consciousness.

“What can be more alluring than the discovery of the nature of talented

thought and converting this thinking from occasional and fleeting flashes

into a powerful and controllable fire of knowledge”  –  G . Altshuller

 Secondly, innovation and its potential benefits are not quite comprehended, just as if a fog obscures our view, and reduces our confidence in what we can safely see ahead of us…

Fog is hard to grasp, and so we cannot easily imagine knitting it into some familiar item. Innovation is therefore understandably dealt with as a grey area by many. They think it is interesting but ambiguous, and consider useful, but too illusive to seriously pursue. But as sunshine can lift a fog, so can a little knowledge, understanding, and a few pointers for our own grey matter clarify a practical way to promote innovation.

The aim of innovation is use clear thoughts and actions to produce purposeful outcomes for an improved future.

Examples could be: a product, service or process with improved benefits or lower effort, cost, or associated harms; a business with increased  and sustainable revenues; better economics and quality of life for society; the development of value-added and purposeful jobs; and reduced environmental harms.

“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship.

The act that endows resources with a new capacity

to create wealth”  –  Peter Drucker

Innovation is related to creativity, ideas, and invention. However, these three aspects are necessary but not sufficient to bring innovation about. Innovation results when a new product, service or process is successfully deployed by an individual or organisation and is sustained by value-added usage or market support and revenues.

Although creative thinking, ideas, and invention are important, various other types of thinking are needed for successful innovation. Innovation thinking will often include the following types of thinking: analytical, logical, divergent, convergent, analogical, critical, systems, reflective, focused, individual, collaborative, intuitive, concrete, abstract, sequential, holistic, conscious, subconscious, systematic, and steered.

Systematic innovation mapped

The image below details aspects of systematic innovation which I will elaborate upon in the text which follows.  The basis, nature, location and usage of systematic innovation approaches will be described. For those wishing to gain additional systematic innovation knowledge, abilities and skills, additional links are supplied at the end of the article.

Mind Map with Systematic Innovation information for 'Based Upon', Teachable and Learnable and Used In
Systematic Innovation information

The basis of systematic innovation

Systematic innovation has deep foundations and an abundant and growing legacy. Its founder and chief researcher was Genrich Altshuller, once a patent clerk in the Soviet Navy. He was curious to know how products, services and processes actually improved. He sought deeper insights into the process of product and other improvements.

Photo Left to right: S. Litvin and G. Altshuller   (Photo courtesy S. Litvin)

The patent office gave Altshuller ample opportunity to study successive patents, all claiming to be improvements of previous patents. And study he did. He found numerous significant insights which have remained stable to the present time.  After reading  thousands of patents, he based 40 distinct insights into innovation principles, on the thousands of patents he reviewed.

Not only was he regarded as the father of systematic innovation, but he could, in my opinion, also be considered to be an early pioneer of using ‘big data’ to gain ‘big insights’. His big insights, which have remained stable and useful for innovation practice over the past 50 years, far surpass the value of the original raw big data (from patents).

The patents he examined, came from many different industries. Today the insights from aggregated patent improvements are still seen to commonly cross industry and technology boundaries. The implication of this is that an organisation’s specific  innovation challenge may have already been solved within another industry. The solution, once discovered, may now merely need small adaptations to be fit for purpose for a new innovation within the specific organisation and its related industry.

Altschuller’s work with patents also led him to discover eight main trends in how technical (social, and other) systems progress. As with the insights he uncovered, the innovation trends still remain stable and useful for innovation practice today, and not only for the present. The trends continue to supply ‘on target’ guidance for the future progression of products, services, processes and systems. For example , the trend of “less human work and more automation”, not only remains true and relevant up to today, but is now accelerating dramatically.

Using systematic innovation approaches, assists practitioners in meeting ‘voice of the customer’ requirements and solutions. Furthermore, systematic innovation additionally guides practitioners to project, with some confidence, the ‘voice of the product, service or process’ into the future. That is, experienced practitioners can spot likely paths for the evolution of a product, service, process or system.

This equips organisations to get a better sense of the value of, and the likely paths of an innovation into the future. The timing of innovation progression events is less easy to predict. However it is clearly easier to spot something incipient, on the horizon, or partially concealed, when you know what you are looking for …

“Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity”

– Michael Porter

Users of Systematic Innovation approaches today number over four million persons. Many individuals and organisations are busy extending systematic innovation  approaches to include nearly all industries. Innovations guided by systematic innovation approaches are accelerating in the arts, sciences, social sciences, business, education, engineering, healthcare, and fashion, to mention a sample. Nearly all roles such as administrators, consultants, supervisors, coaches, educators, managers, leaders and those they influence, stand to benefit from improved innovation knowledge, abilities and skills.

The drawback in South Africa is that most local leadership and management teams are not well versed in the competitive, social, economic, and specific advantages that systematic innovation approaches offer.

Perhaps South Africa has been a little side-tracked when it comes to innovation ‘smarts’? Of course there are some notable exceptions, where significant  local innovations are beginning to benefit our people and economy.

Organisations using systematic innovation are numerous in South Africa. They include companies in energy, automobile manufacture, railway transport, aeronautical industries, fashion houses, retail, ICT, power tools, consumer goods and others. However, most of these innovative organisations operate under global brand names operating within our country and continent.

Systematic innovation can be used in stand-alone organisational initiatives or it may complement other existing and organisationally useful value-added approaches:

Systematic innovation and design thinking composite [1]:

– design thinking strengths are those of immersion of innovators into local social, job and environmental contexts. Additional strengths are empathetic listening, collaboration, communication and rapid prototyping.

However, ideation by means of brainstorming, as used in design thinking and more broadly in organisations,  is not a particularly strong ideation technique. Well facilitated brainstorming has the benefits of inclusion and buy-in of participants, and the sharing of ideas which may be useful.

– systematic innovation excels at elegantly solving difficult product, service and process innovation challenges of a technical nature. It is also capable of solving softer business, social, management, leadership, and organisational problems when required.

Together, the ‘systematic innovation – design thinking composite’ provides an extended scope of innovation skills and services capable of producing better results than one approach or the other would do, especially where technical and people issues are important factors.

Other well-established corporate initiatives that benefit from systematic innovation composite approaches are:

– systematic innovation and ‘Quality Function Deployment [2]’ (‘voice of customer’ projects or initiatives).

– systematic innovation and Six Sigma [3] projects or initiatives.

– systematic innovation and Theory of Constraints [4] projects or initiatives.

Systematic innovation can be used to foster STEAM skills

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics skills (STEM skills) often dominate the current enthusiasm for better productivity and evidence-based practices. However, previous STEM endeavours have often failed to both recognise and properly control the harmful side effects of new and growing  technological abilities, and their tendency to generate both revenues and hype. Harmful externalities of these reinforcing ‘productivity – hype – revenue’ cycles only become noticed after considerable delays.

Introducing the Arts to STEM skills provides STEAM skills, where the arts act as a voice to highlight possible and actual runaway problems. The arts can also be a catalyst for critique to provide a means of encouraging higher, wider, and deeper levels of thinking about possible (and often probable) harmful externalities.

“Some artists want to confront. Some want to invoke thought.

They’re all necessary and they’re all valid” – Maya Lin

Maya Lin Quotes., BrainyMedia Inc, 2019., accessed April 19, 2019.

Examples of some unintended consequences:

  • The unknown future effects of initiating Artificial Intelligence agents.
  • The health and mental health effects on people from the over-use of mobile technology devices.
  • Carbon dioxide sources and their relation to harmful and costly weather events.
  • The effects of new foreign substances or fields introduced into the human body by breathing, eating or direct exposure.
  • The accumulation of various plastics in the world’s oceans.
  • The long term negative individual, family, community, and National effects of joblessness and poor lifestyle factors.

Systematic innovation fosters STEM skills and STEAM skills

STEM skills foster global competitiveness and trade. STEAM skills can supplement the strength of STEM skills by improving peoples’ mental health, resilience, goodwill, and quality of life.  Adding arts skills bring a balance to an over-emphasised technology obsession. Consider sports, entertainment media, and tourism for their potentially huge revenues, trade and economic possibilities, and especially for their alternate social emphases.

Story-telling, ethical judgement, deeper and wider thinking, and many quality-of-life factors can be improved by moving from STEM to STEAM priorities.

Systematic innovation alone, but preferably acting together with other innovation approaches, can and should be used to build and reinforce 21st Century skills in our labour pipeline, and to translate the serious issues facing South Africa into delivered opportunities and improvements.

Let us no longer entertain clouded thinking about innovation. Let us rather harness innovation ‘as a powerful and controllable fire of knowledge’ to effect directed, sustained, and realised positive changes. For individuals and organisations, for society as a whole, for the environment, and for South Africa to leave a positive global legacy.

Know More

Your messages, comments, questions, and interest in this article are appreciated. Let’s start a discussion.

The author facilitates workshops which transfer systematic innovation capabilities (innovation knowledge, ability, and skills) to individuals and organisations.


[1] Design Thinking and or Systematic Innovation Composite.

Design Thinking and or Systematic Innovation Composite

Link accessed 13 April 2019

[2] Quality Function Deployment (QFD)

Link accessed 13 April 2019

[3] Six Sigma  Link accessed 13 April 2019

[4] Theory of Constraints  Link accessed 13 April 2019



Wayne Mallinson