The Seven Cs

By Donal O’Connell

What is innovation?

Innovation starts with thinking differently.  It is a process of questioning, experimenting, learning and adapting. It requires an appetite for risk, a willingness to question, an open mind to look at things without preconception and perhaps most importantly, patience and perseverance.

Innovation can take many forms. It can be disruptive, transformative, radical, breakthrough, incremental or step improvement in nature. It is most important to recognise and appreciate all these different forms as often the simple step or incremental form has a tendency to get overlooked.

Innovation literature typically distinguishes between several separate stages of innovation.  Generating or creating the idea is often seen as the first stage, but it is not the only one.

The Stone Age did not end because they ran out of stones.  The innovation process involves ambiguity, controversy and non-linearity and this poses a certain challenge to many companies interested in properly managing their innovation process. A good, thorough, comprehensive innovation process means finding the right delicate balance between a few successes and the many failures that are inevitable. This may not be the perception of innovation that people are familiar with, as the success stories tend to get all of the publicity, but true innovation means delving into the unknown, where innovations may, and indeed do, fail.

Companies are constantly exhorted to become more customer or market driven, but the companies whose success has been based on radical business innovation are better described as market driving.  While market driven companies are excellent in generating incremental innovation, they rarely produce the type of radical innovation which underlies market driving companies.

Sailing the seven seas:

Understanding and appreciating innovation is crucial, but it may not be sufficient to get the innovative and creative juices flowing in an organisation. The triggers or environments which encourage or stimulate innovation also need to be understood and exploited.

The phrase “the Seven Seas” has had different meanings to different people at different times in history. The term “Seven Seas” is mentioned by ancient Hindus, Chinese, Persians, Romans and other cultures. The term historically referred to bodies of water along trade routes and regional waters; although in some cases the seas are mythical and not actual bodies of water. The term “Seven Seas” has evolved to become a figurative term to describe a sailor who has navigated all the seas and oceans of the world, and not literally seven.

I use this phrase or rather a variant of it, namely “the Seven Cs”  to help in identifying some of the major triggers or environments which inspire and motivate innovation and creativity, namely …

  • Challenges
  • Changes
  • Convergence
  • Competition
  • Collaboration
  • Competencies
  • Culture

Challenges are seen as opportunities by the innovation community.  Bigger picture issues such as poverty, disease, pollution, water shortages, climate change or security, at first glance seem insurmountable challenges.  However, these issues need to be tackled on a global scale and innovators tend to see such challenges as opportunities.  At an enterprise level, challenges may appear in the area of quality, customer service, efficiency, cost management, logistics, product performance or functionality.  Again, innovators do not shy away from such challenges, as they are eager to explore possibilities and opportunities.


A recent report compiled for one particular industry, identified a number of fundamental changes taking place.

  • The future of media is social, where its richness is in conversation
  • Consumers are broadening their ethical vision
  • New applications, using fixed and mobile internet access have democratised media, thereby increasing the power of the consumer
  • Women are increasingly embracing and using technologies
  • Multi-sensory user interface experiences are becoming the norm
  • New application usage for mobile devices in emerging markets can bypass traditional stages of IT development

There is typically strong resistance to change as people are afraid of change, or rather the “unknown” that change will bring.  Many people believe that things are fine as they are today and that forecasted changes will not really happen or will not impact them and there are also many who are cynical about change.  Innovators, however, are delighted when changes occur and embrace them with a passion.


Convergence is an occurrence of two or more things coming together and technological convergence is the tendency for different technological systems to evolve towards performing similar tasks.  In information technology, convergence is a term for the combining of personal computers, telecommunications and television into a user experience that is accessible to all.  Convergence has significant implications for industry and the consumer.  It will challenge and is challenging existing business models, patterns of consumption, shared values and common experiences, which will in turn pose challenges and provide opportunities for all the parties involved.  Innovators are delighted when convergence occurs.


A competitive spirit is having the will to win and striving to be number one and innovators are often by nature competitive.  They like the act of competing for something or engaging in a contest and they will often benchmark themselves against others.  Competition in business and economics encompasses the notion of individuals and companies striving for a greater share of a market to sell or buy goods and services.  Competition therefore acts as a self-improvement incentive, stimulating innovation and encouraging efficiency.


Engaging customers, partners, suppliers, consumers, and the company’s own employees in the innovation process will bring clear rewards and reaching out to others to come and join in, to work together, to share both the risks and the achievements will greatly encourage innovation.  Innovators move in a world of formal and informal networks and the act of collaboration is second nature to them.


Competencies are skills acquired through work experience, life experience, study or training.  They can be thought of as the tools that individuals use for successful or exemplary performance.  They are the traits or characteristics, including an individual’s knowledge, skills, thought patterns, aspects of self-esteem, and social roles that they use to achieve successful or exemplary performance of any type.  Competencies are the knowledge, skill and attitude that will enable a person to effectively perform the activities of a given occupation or function to the standards expected.  Innovators are always striving to grow their competencies and skills.


Often, great innovation is done without any official sanctioning or target setting and is achieved just by individuals who found the time and the means to pursue their ideas.  A permissive and supporting workplace fosters this kind of behaviour.  The first step in creating an innovation culture is by ensuring that your employees work in an atmosphere which permits them the necessary freedom to stray from what may be normal or ordinary in their everyday work.  They must be comfortable in their surroundings and have a good relationship with their fellow workers.  Sufficient resources must be available to help them put some of these ideas into action and they should not be afraid to ask questions, as the answers, or the lack of answers, may provide grounds for such innovation.

Culture basically refers to the attitudes and behaviours that are characteristic of a particular group or organisation.  It generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. It can be defined as the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a group or organisation.  Innovators are appreciative of both a supportive and learning culture, yet questioning and challenging culture.  It should be a ‘no fear’ culture with a passion for innovation.

Looking inside the individual:

This seven Cs list so far is an interesting one but I think it has a distinct flavor to it.  Virtually all of the items listed are externally imposed and societal in nature.  Challenges come from others.  Changes come from the environment.  Convergence happens when two or more communities drift toward each other.  Competition is obviously external, and so is collaboration.  Competencies are in a very insidious way external.  The trend toward institutional schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school impresses competencies on the individual that the institutions have decided.

One very important thing that drives innovation is internal and not external, it is individual and not societal.  It is curiosity.  I would be willing to bet that most of the big world-changing innovations started out internally and not externally, and that they are based at least initially on curiosity.

There is also a spiritual item on the list, namely creativity.  We make new things out of nothing because we have the gift of creativity within us and everything we speak about when it comes to innovation stems from that.  It is a mistake to think that human organisations, such as companies, societies and governments can engender innovation from themselves.  It must initially come from within.

Final thoughts:

We are witnessing a dramatic change in industry today.  In the past the focus was on production-oriented industry within hierarchical organisational structures and the employees were typically seen as labourers in the organisation.  Start-ups were local, universities were seen as providers of education and background research and cities and regions were viewed as physical infrastructure.  Today, we are seeing more and more technology, brand and service-based ventures and open innovation and network-based organisational structures, with strategic human resources being now the norm. Start-ups are now global, with universities acting as the engines of the knowledge economy and cities and regions are now the intellectual infrastructure.

In the industrial economy the focus was on the material product and control of the production factor.  Wealth was created in the transactions of physical goods and the number of business models was relatively limited.  The industrial economy required businesses to be aware of the closest actors and their immediate perspective.  The world is rapidly changing and in the recent past innovation was about technology and the control of quality and cost, whereas today, it is about taking a company’s organisation, previously built for efficiency, and rewiring it for creativity and growth.  Creativity and innovation are key elements to survival and profitability in any business environment, with markets constantly demanding new products with better designs, more features and a lower price.  Consequently, the effective management of innovation, including the triggers which encourage and invigorate it, is a vital component of any successful business.

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