Why is collaboration and connectivity needed? What are you trying to achieve? That’s the starting point in my conversations with leaders who are eager to apply the network perspective to their work—and often the answer is “innovation.”
Innovation is a business imperative for most organizations today but few know how to activate a network to produce innovation where it can have the greatest impact.
Silicon Valley Company Uses Network Analysis to Identify Key Players
One of the best examples of a “purpose-built network” comes from Silicon Valley’s Juniper Networks a few years ago. As a startup, it revolutionized the computer network industry with the M40 router, grew rapidly and became an influential global company. Over time, however, the company built on innovation seemed to struggle with it.
Company leadership knew that to create meaningful innovation at Juniper, three groups—engineering, sales and infrastructure—needed to collaborate and work across barriers of function, level, location and technical expertise.
Through Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), we mapped the interactions that were and were not taking place within and across those groups. For example, 49% of Engineering’s incoming relationships were with Sales and only 21% of Sales’ incoming relationships were with Engineering—less than expected levels of collaboration. The ONA gave a clear diagnosis of Juniper’s challenge to innovate across boundaries.
The ONA also identified people who played key roles:
- Connectors were known for their informal leadership and trusted opinions; people turned to them for technical expertise and functional advice.
- Energizers unleashed passion—rather than grudging compliance—among their colleagues.
- Cross-boundary brokers were connected across functional groups and were effective problem solvers because they could integrate perspectives.
Purpose-Built Network Given Innovation Challenge
With data in hand, Juniper tapped 85 people from engineering, sales and operations and with differing network roles, levels, locations and background to create a boundary-spanning innovation network. The goal was to hatch new product ideas and jump-start the network needed to bridge the entrenched organizational silos.
This was a critical success factor. Far too often, innovation efforts are staffed with the same people over and over. And often these people over-represent their functional background or technical/scientific discipline and literally don’t see possibilities that could come from integrating with others. In this case, Juniper leveraged the network to both engage the right constellation of people for the development of the innovation and connect early with key network influencers that would prove critical to implementation of the idea.
The new network members were invited to participate in a three-day “Innovation Challenge” in San Francisco that was unlike a typical offsite or innovation initiative. The event took place primarily in a converted garage space rather than a corporate center or hotel conference room.
Without any presentations from formal leaders, participants were sent out in small groups to learn and gain perspective on future network technologies through assignments at area businesses. Later, they primed their creative thinking with a robot-building competition before turning their energy toward product innovation.
On day two, the company brought in senior technical experts to contribute to product ideas an unusual way. These respected thinkers became a “human library.” The product innovation groups could “check out” and “swap” experts, allowing ideas to be explored in an informal, low-pressure way. This, too, was critical! Often teams falter when they tap experts who are already committed to 6, 8 or more initiatives. This one-day commitment enabled the team to leverage their insights in ways that fit into the needs of the evolving solution without either: 1) the expert over-defining the trajectory of the solution or 2) teams being held up trying to get the experts’ time on their calendar.
On the third day, teams shared their most promising ideas with senior executives—informally, with butcher-block paper, colored markers and no slides. Again, the focus was on learning and exploring, rather than evaluating. This, too, was a big departure from the norm where teams would develop bulletproof presentations over months, only to have senior leaders weigh in at the end with a necessarily critical eye. Here they were co-creating and so got the leaders’ insights early on, as well as their commitment and support.
Network Approach Breaks Down Barriers to Innovation
The outcome of the Innovation Challenge was a decision to move forward with a hybrid of two product ideas. Crucially, Juniper was careful to prevent business-as-usual from taking over. The product was developed the way it started—through the network—and was not assigned to the usual business structure or managers. They went to great lengths to avoid typical one-way, top-down communication patterns and to create opportunities for constructive conversations. Network sponsors also protected the group from the established structures and pressures that could derail or take over their efforts.
In less than six months, the network built a product prototype and began to get customer feedback. The product quickly moved into testing with a number of large companies. By activating a purpose-driven network, Juniper found both product and process innovation, creating new capability and opportunities to leverage cross-boundary networks moving forward.
The Juniper story showcases best practices for prompting innovation through networks, practices that we’ve seen play out in other organizations and show up in our research:
- Identify network patterns and roles.
- Facilitate experiences to engage employees.
- Organize and empower the network to develop the solution.
- Create a prototype early.
- Iterate with the network to refine.
By investing in purpose-built innovation networks, organizations create greater visibility and accessibility of experts, break down silos and interpersonal barriers to collaboration, remove red tape and other formal structures that impede innovation and generate capability to interact in new ways.
Find out more about employee networks and collaborative practices for innovation in How to Catalyze Innovation in Your Organization (Sloan Management Review), How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together (Harvard Business Review) and A Bridge Too Far? How Boundary Spanning Networks Drive Organizational Change and Effectiveness (Organizational Dynamics).Share!