For innovation to thrive, you must create space for open, free-form interaction and engagement. Get it right and the ideas will flow.
Writing for MIT Sloan Management Review, Michael Arena, Rob Cross, Jonathan Sims, and Mary Uhl-Bien explain how to build and nurture innovation-friendly networks, behaviours, and spaces to unleash the creativity in your organisation
THE INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM
Some companies formalise the creative process, some rely on serendipity to produce the steady stream of new thinking they need, others buy in ideas and expertise via mergers and acquisitions. But in large corporations, innovation is a social phenomenon. It’s only by creating “collaborative contexts where innovation is likely to emerge from unpredictable pockets of creativity”, that executives can hope to beat the great innovators – Facebook, Apple and Alphabet – at their own game.
Based on analysis of ten years’ research into the origins of successful innovation, the authors argue that the key to kindling a blaze of new ideas is to create “adaptive space” – an ecosystem in which interpersonal connections and interactions break through barriers created by hierarchy and departmental separation.
MAP YOUR NETWORKS
Digitisation makes the task of mapping external and internal communications easier than ever before – you can see who communicates with who, when, and about what.
1) Find out who your communicators are – the “brokers” who source and circulate new ideas from inside and outside the company.
2) Find out who your clever people are – they’re the “central connectors”; trusted experts and problem solvers who engage with innovative concepts and organise people to get things done.
3) Find out who your “energisers” are – your live wires. They come from anywhere in the network and may also be connectors or brokers. They’re people who get involved, offer support and scrutiny, and motivate others.
OPTIMISE INFORMAL NETWORKS
Knowing how your firm’s informal networks operate means you can optimise them for innovation:
1) Enable brokers to access wider information sources. Procter and Gamble’s Connect + Develop programme enables relationships between the firm and external partners to bring new ideas into the business, where they can be developed.
2) Position experts so they can input into a wider array of projects. During HP’s glory days, company policy was to move engineers between major projects at regular intervals – a great way of spreading knowledge and increasing employees’ connections inside and outside the company.
3) Inform energisers of new ideas and concepts they can engage with. Delaware firm W L Gore & Associates Inc.’s peer review program enables staff from different departments to scrutinise new ideas to make sure they’re winners. It’s a process that challenges associates to experiment and learn from their mistakes.
NURTURE INNOVATION-FRIENDLY BEHAVIOURS
As well as making the most of the informal networks already operating in your company, it’s vital to encourage an innovative culture that embraces the whole organisation:
1) Engage wider networks to help solve problems. According to the research, that way you’re much more likely to succeed.
2) Create stories around projects. Tell others why projects are important and why their contribution matters.
3) Instil a sense of mutual advantage. Fledgling innovations are more likely to win support and assistance from disparate sources if others can see what they stand to gain.
4) Engage others by asking for feedback. Don’t hog ownership of projects. Instead, let others take their share of the credit; openness and generosity breed cooperation.
5) Get prototypes out quickly. And get working on the next iteration – the real is more likely to inspire engagement than the hypothetical.
ESTABLISH A FORUM
An adaptive space isn’t an incubator – a physical building – it’s a forum that constantly adapts to the needs of the organisation. Crucially, it should be a space where employees can interact without adding much to their existing workloads – a sure fire way to snuff out enthusiasm. Here’s how two firms create the space to innovate.
INTERNAL CROWDSOURCING – NOBLIS
Noblis is a nonprofit research group based in Virginia, which works with governments on data analytics, cybersecurity and networking issues. The CEO, Amr ElSawy, says: “We have smart people everywhere, but we don’t always know what their interests are.” The solution: the firm uses internal crowdsourcing software to solicit new ideas from staff.
Submission of incomplete, initial solutions is actively encouraged, with other players within the organisation naturally coalescing around the best ideas to refine and polish them.
The breaking down of hierarchy creates a collaborative culture which harnesses more of the organisation’s collective intelligence. The transparency of a crowdsourcing system for mooting new ideas makes people less territorial, and the wider recognition of talent gives staff at the organisation’s periphery a chance to shine.
INNOVATION EVENTS – GENERAL MOTORS
To spark the movement of ideas and information across their organisation, General Motors launched its own adaptive space – its GM2020 program – which consists of:
- Co-Labs. Sometimes time pressure inspires creative solutions. Co-Labs are 24-hour intensives where up to 60 employees compete in small teams to pitch new ideas to executives.
- Summits. Creating and sharing events where up to 300 staff – ideas people and communicators – meet to share and apply novel solutions to design problems
- Tipping Forward events. Up to 200 people from across the firm meet to share local success stories. This encourages the broader application of innovative ideas.
GM2020 also encourages employees to create their own adaptive spaces. Monthly talks by company experts, tinkering sessions for engineers and researchers from across functions, and internal “learning communities”, are just some of the ways employees have responded.
Big companies are organised for efficiency through hierarchies and the division of labour, but innovation thrives in fluid spaces – forums – where people connect and engage.