Getting innovation to scale: Waves

Getting innovation to scale: Waves

Getting innovation to scale can be divided into three main areas: EmergenceNetworks, and Waves. This article is on Waves, the last in a series of three. Through scaling, smart movers can quickly build substantial market shares – or define entirely new markets.


We operate in business and societal environments that are complex, dynamic, and uncertain. This environment provides new challenges and at the same time great opportunities through scaling – which we have defined as the successful introduction of innovations that spread rapidly in non-linear fashion, seemingly self-propelled and with relatively little effort, resulting in an outsized impact.


Applying these new scaling techniques can be significantly more cost-effective than traditional advertising, or lobbying activities.


Successfully developing and introducing innovations is the lifeblood of any enterprise and requires a special kind of leadership – innovation leadership. Innovation leaders guide their organizations and employees to produce more creative ideas, products, services and solutions. When it comes to scaling innovation leadership can make the biggest difference by having an understanding of scaling that they can incorporate into the design phase of an innovative project or concept. Designing for scale in an early phase will make the likelihood of scaling successfully when implementing much larger.


We have identified two dozen practical Scaling tactics that can be designed into the concept during the concept development stage. This should lead to accelerated diffusion and adoption upon introduction. Our research draws on scientific approaches such as Complexity TheoryBehavioral Economics and Systems Theory.  We have divided the topic into three main areas: Emergence, Networks, and Waves. Within these three areas, we have identified different tactics for leaders to benefit from scaling. We call these scaling frames. This article focuses on our six Waves Scaling frames.


Emergence. This is essentially collective behavior. It refers to the phenomenon of patterns becoming apparent in complex systems of interacting agents. Innovation leadership can look to make use of emergent collective behavior by designing openness into a system and designing rules for interaction, which allow successful behavior to surface and spread. We have distinguished 13 separate tactics or scaling frames that we have clustered under Emergence. More on this topic can be found in this article.


Networks. Innovation leadership can take advantage of the properties of networks, the structures and technology supporting networks, and the social conditioning that exists with network members to scale their innovations. We have identified 6 distinct Networks scaling frames. More on this topic can be found in this article.


Waves. Waves are a naturally occurring phenomenon in complex systems. It is one thing for innovation leadership to be prepared to watch for waves and catch them when they appear. It is another thing altogether to create, nurture and sustain waves that are steered in the direction of your entrepreneurial vision. We have 6 Waves scaling frames.

Through scaling, smart movers can quickly build substantial market shares – or even define entirely new markets. Click To Tweet


Brian Arthur, one of the pioneers of positive feedback economics, has a favorite story. Born in Hawaii and a skilled surfer, Arthur explains that the key to good surfing is the ability to spot an adequate wave as it forms. That gives you time to reach the right place to catch the wave. The capability of riding the wave is only half of what is needed; spotting it in the first place is essential.

The existence of waves is visible in everyday life. Whether it is in “Trending Topics” on Twitter or pre-season fashion trends, new elements suddenly surface and grow into system wide-expressions and manifestations, or new trends in music and entertainment. If many people go and see a movie, we deem it to be interesting, even if we were initially hesitant to go. In case of fire we all run to the same fire exit.

In many cases the causes of such waves are very difficult to track. The existence of such waves is a direct expression of the effect of interaction and positive feedback, where small causes can lead to system wide consequences. As in wave surfing, innovation leadership requires the skill to detect such emerging waves in time to get on top of them. Some innovation leaders prove to be better than others in detecting the “weak signals” of change. Yet being sensitive for the existence of such waves will be helpful in the sensing and visioning part of the cycle.

In addition, if innovation leadership understands the underlying forces and creates a small but determining change in the working of the system, it may provide a very powerful tool in using the wave energy. Companies have done so successfully in the past. Benetton (“United Colors of Benetton”) sensed the growing trend of individualism in clothing. To accommodate this from the classical set up of the manufacturing process (first coloring the garment and then knit it into the final product) was not economical. It required a level of prediction and planning that was no longer compatible with the heterogeneous and unpredictable nature of the markets they wanted to serve. They showed innovation leadership by developing the technology to reverse these two manufacturing steps, enabling them to color the sweaters driven by consumer choice in the outlets, after production, and immediately before delivery.

The existence of waves is visible in everyday life. Whether it is in “Trending Topics” on Twitter or pre-season fashion trends, new elements suddenly surface and grow into system-wide expressions and manifestations. Click To Tweet

When The Hub was started in London in 2005, it exhibited innovative leadership by riding a dual wave of social entrepreneurship and the trend towards more self-employed or small start-up professionals. Seven years later, there is a network of more than 25 hubs across 5 continents, providing a place where entrepreneurs can go to work, learn and network. Their tell-tale slogan is “Where change goes to work”. Spaces are designed to provide a creative environment, as well as a professional environment. Membership is customized from people who work there full time, to those who only attend the events. Everyone has access to Hub locations across the world.

While it won’t be easy for innovation leadership to generate the energy required to actually create a new wave, the example of The Hub shows that it is possible with relatively small interventions to unlock the existing energy and generate your own wave. The implication is that timing is a major issue. Some excellent ideas might not generate a wave and hence will never come to fruition. Innovation leadership realizes that an adequate idea properly timed and using the wave energy can scale to become a major success.

Innovation leadership realizes that an adequate idea properly timed and using the wave energy can scale to become a major success. Click To Tweet

The six scaling frames: Waves

The frames provide innovation leadership with practical perspectives on how to unlock the pent-up energy found in strong waves. They are indications of what creative leaders and innovation leadership learn in more depth at the THNK Creative Leadership Program, or at programs designed for in-company training.

1. Unleash a wave

Unlock the pent-up energy in the system by removing a key constraint for society or by providing a focus and release to this latent energy, for instance through a major event or a movement. Communicate a compelling story of change to direct and support the momentum of the crowd.

2. Catch a wave

Learn which underlying forces drive your opportunity and be prepared to take full advantage of developments once a favorable wave appears. Put monitoring mechanisms in place to be able to react fast to new trends. Implement a flexible value chain that can ramp up quickly when demand soars.

3. Ride a wave

Nurture the wave you are riding and maintain your momentum by providing more energy, people, and opportunities to those factors on which your success depends. Keep adapting your approach to changing conditions. Consider jumping on related waves to maintain relevance and reduce risks.

Communicate a compelling story of change to direct and support the momentum of your audience. Click To Tweet

4. Create a movement

Design a movement, mobilizing people behind a shared purpose, by using brands, platforms, and content that encourages self-action and builds a sustaining mass of supporters over time.

5. Synchronize

Design synchronizing activities that give relevant networks a heartbeat, a pulse, a rhythm, with an expectation of continuation over time, creating a sense of synergy and common purpose. Routines, such as recurring major events, repeated activities on specific dates, and regular communication condition people to receiving messages and carrying out actions.

6. Build crescendo

Deploy a series of coordinated actions and events that grow in importance and impact over time, thereby making your concept more visible, and culminate in a seemingly inevitable result. Each time period should build on previous actions, deepening your relationship with existing supporters and making your initiative more attractive for new adopters.

The six scaling frames on Waves offer innovation leadership different mechanisms and tactics to favorably influence the emergence of successful outcomes. They do so by leveraging the notion that a lot of pent-up energy is available in current systems that will carry your concept when released. Skilful innovation leadership will aim to spot, catch and ride a big wave, and will try to create a movement with its own rhythm, building towards its own nexus to make it unavoidable for people to join. As the right waves can fundamentally boost new ideas, or product in a non-linear fashion, small design efforts to choreograph a movement or build up an inevitable climax, can have an outsized impact.

Though it is no guarantee for success, consciously designing for scale will give innovation leadership a better position to benefit from scaling opportunities than by just leaving it up to chance, also it will sharpen the awareness, understanding and skills in your organization to use non-linear growth as part of your strategy. By starting to learn about this phenomenon and the body of knowledge around it now, you may put your organization on a learning curve that itself could be subject to non-linear growth. Who knows where it might scale to.

Getting Innovation to Scale – Waves 2
Though it is no guarantee for success, consciously designing for scale will give innovation leadership a better position to benefit from scaling opportunities than by just leaving it up to chance. Click To Tweet

How to use the scaling frames

We now have presented 25 scaling frames in three categories. These scaling frames have been designed to help creative leaders and innovation leadership at all stages of development, from raw idea to established organization. The frames can help start-ups or those in the early stages of concept development to embed scaling tactics into the concept design, so that it has the potential to scale. For more established ventures, the frames can help accelerate uptake, and from a corporate perspective, be instilled into strategic thinking to continue successful growth.

The frames are applicable for business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, non-profits and other social causes. The logic of the frames can even be applied to internal change and transformation projects, as these too need to scale positive change in a non-linear fashion. 

Reading all scaling frames completely is a good option. Each scaling frame can stand on its own feet, yet they will be better understood when overseeing the whole. Alternatively scanning the titles and doing more research on the ones that appeal to you can be a good strategy – as affinity with an area can lead to the insights and expertise that will make the difference in applying these frames.

To learn how to create, nurture, and sustain waves in the direction of your entrepreneurial vision, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.