Slow down to accelerate innovation with the ecosystem

In times of ever-accelerating innovation, executives no longer seem to know where to start. Has the future already caught up with these organisations and is rushing to implement new technology such as digital twins, spacial computing, artificial intelligence or the metaverse what will give organisations an edge? Or is it urgent to step back and take a holistic view of how innovation from a people-centric perspective will shape a value-driven future?  A future where learning ecosystems give the nimble organisation a sustainable competitive advantage.

Change is nothing new and leaders have always been able to prepare themselves reasonably for an unknown future through various methods such as scenario planning. Today, however, not only are we increasingly inundated by new waves of change, they are also more complex and the challenges affect employees, the organisation and the entire ecosystem.

In light of this, executives are trying harder and faster to deal with the changes they are inundated with. More so, executives are considered excelling based on quickly anticipating change. Yet in my opinion, it is precisely the strength of top managers such as the just-elected Erwin Verstraelen CDO Port of Antwerp and Bruges and CDO of the year 2022 in Belgium to slow down, to shape their own future from a holistic approach together with their teams and involved ecosystem stakeholders instead of running after the facts. They deal more effectively with increased complexity and challenges – and they use less energy paying attention to the next three simple guidelines;

Focus not on problems but on opportunities

In the quantum world view – where everything is connected – challenges are increasingly complex. As a result, it often seems impossible to keep finding solutions to every problem that arises. Yet, from the quantum worldview approach, we learn that a solution to every problem presents itself, as long as we are aware of it and lead by following Terence Mauri’s 3D Leader Principles; Think BOLD – Choose BRAVE – Go BEHOND.

However, many organisations are still managed from silo thinking without a holistic view of the connected problems and the opportunities they present for sustainable change. Connections are not made, involving other departments or stakeholders in the ecosystem. Yet Erwin Verstraelen also proves that letting go of silo thinking and jointly looking at the opportunities creates more support. More so, this approach requires less effort to follow up on mismatched ad hoc initiatives.

A simple example of this can often be found in innovations deployed by L&D, HR and internal communication. Initiatives that all aim to engage employees in the organisation and their own development.  The technologies they deploy to this end often overlap but are not connected so that the data generated is not used for improvement. Indeed, instead of reinforcing each other, they compete for the employee’s attention. 

Stop, look back and learn

When I am invited to guide executive workshops, it is often on projects that have already started and where implementation is not going as expected or hoped.  Taking a step back is therefore the first thing I do to understand from route-cause analysis what problems they are trying to tackle. (Have to say that almost always these routes sprang from a problem and not from an opportunity).  More to the point, often the problems for which an innovation route was launched don’t actually seem to tackle the real problem, so the solutions turn out to be nothing more than a sticking plaster on a festering wound that continues to spread. 

One of the many band-aids I see, of course, has to do with performance management, re-skilling or learning new skills. Instead of looking at the skills needed now, we can look at a new way of fostering engagement that strengthens the organisation’s growth mindset and learning culture. Here, the most innovative or immersive technologies are often not the solution. More so, we learnt that the opposite was achieved because the solution was not designed human-centric so employees did not see the personal added value.

Finding out ‘the why behind the why’ of a problem is the first step after which opportunities for improvement can be looked at. I personally like to use Algorithmic Business Thinking for this, which I learned from Paul McDonagh Smith faculty director at MIT. This method, which is very similar to Design Thinking, supports that holistic, value-driven and human-centric vision in which possible obstacles for linked projects can also be identified.  It is also extremely important to involve all stakeholders, including those who are most resistant to the innovation. Involving them and making them ambassadors if possible is a quick-start for a successful project.

Set a good example, give direction and show commitment.

The above approach requires leadership that can give direction from a future-oriented and sustainable vision.  A quality that Erwin Verstraelen certainly exhibited. Not only is he an inspiring leader for his own organisation, he also looks beyond his own organisation and looks for partners in the ecosystem who together contribute to the growth of people and the organisation, setting an example in the interest of society. 

In my book Learning Ecosystems, I call this visionary ecosystem connector, a LearnScaper, who engages all stakeholders on a people-centred basis for shared growth. I like to compare it to a landscape architect who knows which crops grow better in proximity to others or need just that more sun. This architect also knows that like a flowering garden, some projects if sown well require less effort and guidance. This analogy also applies to learning ecosystems where an inspiring leader sets the guidelines and sets the example to connect. As a result, even the biggest opponents of change become ambassadors committed to making the project a success.

The above principles require a (small) delay to innovate faster. A delay to prioritise opportunities for sustainable growth from a holistic view with stakeholders involved to determine the direction together.  It soon turns out that this approach takes less energy and prevents frustration, making it easier to launch more innovation projects and implement them more efficiently and effectively.

Photos by Thomas de Boever

Learning Ecosystems support executives in a world in increasingly rapid change. It contains case studies and tips for learning ecosystems. Executive workshops and keynotes to guide a journey or inspire employees can be requested at

Published by Katja Habit Of Improvement

Lifelong learning and an unstoppable drive for innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Katja Schipperheijn is a digital learning strategist and internationally recognized consultant and keynote speaker on learning and engagement in the connected world. Her area of expertise focuses on the interaction of people and technology to achieve sustainable growth based on commitment and well-being. She has worked for more than 15 years with tech companies and learning organizations and holds a Master Degree in Economical Science, an Executive MBA from the Antwerp Management School and Digital Learning Strategy from MITSloan

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