Institutional Innovation: How the World is Changing and What You Need to Do About It

John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Duleesha Kulasooriya have collaborated (in various parings) on three important bite-sized books:

  1. Institutional Innovation (Hagel, Seely Brown, Kulasooriya)
  2. Shift Happens (Hagel, Seely Brown)
  3. Scaling Edges (Hagel, Seely Brown, Kulasooriya)

Three Foundational Reads

These bite-sized gems were produced by IDEA BITE PRESS working with Deloitte’s Center for The Edge. In this post, I’m going to share my impressions of Institutional Innovation.

Does your whole-collar job feel like you’re on a production line?

Institutional Innovation provides kernel guidance including justification for addressing organizational transformation (AKA innovation) as a mandatory prerequisite for product and process innovation to succeed. I continue to see organizations (of all sizes) expect their teams and their programs to adapt to changing technologies, changes in direction and changes in leadership while the organization itself remains structured and operating as it has for the previous 5, 10, 20 and more years.

The authors address this common failure early and with sufficient detail to provide a skeletal road map for leaders reluctant to look in the mirror (before looking in the team room and at the program metrics.) It’s not a small number of people.

I’m going to cite several sections from this book directly and attempt to amplify them through my own experience and recommendations. I don’t claim to have unique insight into institutional innovation, but I’ve been fortunate to have been allowed to plan, develop and deliver innovative solutions within institutions that were themselves not designed to support innovation organizationally: They made exceptions when they saw that innovation at the team and program levels was beneficial, but they didn’t address institutional (re)organization in support of innovation.



Here We Go!

(Italicized text is original content from Institutional Innovation.)

  1. Institutional innovations make both product and process innovations easier. This seems obvious (especially from a consultant’s perspective) but I continually find leadership and middle-management reluctant to examine how they’re organized, how they’re working and the underlying reasons why. This condition is far too common in 2020 rather than disappearing.
  2. Why are so many institutions struggling (with product release schedules? with Agile and Transformation? with learning cultures?) Institutions are embedded in the cultures, technologies and infrastructures of their time. This is especially true of organizations that grow through acquisition. It’s myth that the acquired organization (and teams) will inherit the parent organization’s values, principles and overall culture. (I’ve seen this falsehood perpetuated far too many times.)
  3. But to succeed in a rapidly changing knowledge economy, you need the ability to learn quickly and adapt. So much of institutional learning is packaged, rote and static (meaning it is delivered or taken with little to no follow-up or amplification.) Learning has been deemphasized in many institutions. The impact (of this absent commitment) reverberates from the teams and individual contributors to the bottom line.
  4. To learn quickly and adapt, institutions need to stop pursuing scalable efficiency and embrace a new mindset: Scalable Learning. Too many people in leadership position are focused on efficient operations and metrics versus strategies for continuous (and purposeful) learning.  What does scalable learning entail? Rethinking all of your relationships, structures, processes and models. (Much more than whether to use Scrum or Kanban or sending one person to training and expecting them to train everyone else thoroughly when they return.)
  5. Scalable learning has two key characteristics:
    1. Specializing
      • Choose what to focus on 
        • Many organizations attempt to improve (or transform) most or all of their operations at once. Enterprise ___ Transformation has captured much attention but not yielded the outcomes anticipated (or promised.)
        • Getting to the core of one’s business practice or area of expertise allows one to focus.
      • Rely on others to do everything else
        • Once you’re clear on your area of expertise and emphasis, find or create opportunities for others to do everything else (really.) This is a key step in your journey towards accelerating your outcomes and to making key decisions in much less time.
      • Evolve your specialization (underline added for emphasis)
        • Amplify and broaden your area of expertise (and uniqueness.) This is where your added-value lives so give it plenty of oxygen and growing space (under the guidance of focus and remaining closely aligned to your specialization. This isn’t a license to experiment wildly or endlessly.)
    2. Connecting
      • Connecting takes place within your institution and outside of it, too. Improving your connections will allow you to learn faster, from a greater variety of (focused) sources, and to accelerate sooner.
      • Prerequisites for connecting effectively:
        • Let information flow freely versus sending management or a few individual contributors to key training or conferences.
        • Assess talent and ideas wherever they are versus only seeking the opinions of a select few (again and again) ignoring most of your employees (especially the ones closest to the work.)
        • Create mutually beneficial relationships versus attempting to control others through hierarchy and fear.


It takes a network of internal and external resources for innovation to thrive.

Institutional Innovation is about … enriching people’s lives by creating meaningful careers. Many organizations have scaled back Human Resources and reduced its ability to work directly with employees (and consultants) to ensure that the workforce is both contributing and improving (to contribute more in the future.) It’s rare that I see an organization with a progressive and proactive Human Resources group empowered to be a peer of technical and product leadership (in how the workforce is developed and led.)

This booklet concludes with an essay by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davidson aimed at leadership. If you’re responsible for leading or influencing development and institutional progress, you should read this essay carefully and discuss it at length with your peers.

For such a small booklet, this is a very impactful read. Buy a copy for everyone in your organization (really) and establish discussion groups.

Greg Tutunjian

Greg Tutunjian is a leadership and performance coach specializing in team-centric innovation. Greg is a former software and systems engineer, technical program manager and director, and now advisor to organizations ranging from small and medium-sized software product and service companies to Fortune 10 multinationals.