Fostering Innovation: Repurposing Context for Core

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I’ve just finished reading Geoffrey Moore’s Dealing with Darwin and while there is a fair amount of content that, as far as I can see, doesn’t necessarily reflect a lot of what is to be found in the academic literature regarding innovation, there is one very important concept tackled that is at the heart of firms’ ongoing desire to actually benefit from innovation initiatives undertaken. This is the concept of “repurposing context for core”.

Context is that required effort to “keep this thing going”. It’s the overhead involved in keeping already existing services and products getting to market. Most obviously it’s the Operations department in most service organisations and the Marketing and Sales department in product organisations. But it’s also everything that supports those departments: Finance, HR, IT, etc. 

Moore talks about the organisational inertia created when increasingly more resources are invested in context than in core. Although he says inertia is not the enemy of innovation (since the inertia of the previous innovation allowed the firm to stay it’s course), it does resist things at the point of change. It is at this point where executive management needs to pay special attention to be able to deconstruct organisational inertia and repurpose the resources it consumes in favour of more innovative undertakings. To this end, companies create new departments with the aim of completely freeing them up from context. Sometimes they go a step further and create an entirely new spinoff company. Read Meeting the Challenge of Dispruptive Change by Christenson and Overdorf for more.

On the other hand, core “is that which differentiates your company to create sustainable competitive advantage”. Moore indicates that while context might outweigh core by organisational resource allocation, but core outweighs context in strategic importance. Putting resources into context pays off next quarter; putting resources into core pays off next year and hopefully for the next few years.

This whole situation can be applied to a software development team as well. We are constantly looking to “repurpose context for core” (or at least reducing the effort and attention required by context) by automating testing, automating deployments, reducing process friction, refactoring to a more agile codebase and reducing wasted effort like not building the right thing or the thing right. Doing these things successfully buys us the ability to spend more time and attention focusing on things that can increasingly set us apart from the mediocre, like better usability and quicker response time to market of newly developed features and products. Of course it is common to find that driving down the effort required by overhead is often done “to make life easier” or to “cut out mistakes” rather than with the explicit goal of freeing up resources to focus on differentiation.

I think it is a compelling argument to begin using time gained by doing things in better ways, to doing things that differentiate your product or service.


“There is no new technology in the iPod.”

– Geoffrey Moore

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