90% of executives claim that long-term organizational success depends on developing and implementing new ideas. But innovation is difficult, especially in large organizations designed for efficiency and consistency. Most proactive innovation efforts fall short of expectations. Few programs result in ongoing innovation needed for growth or to adapt to rapidly shifting markets.
A more effective way to foster emergent innovation is to invest in employee networks.
Most innovations of substances occur in collaboration, not with a flash of insight by a lone genius or an isolated R&D team. They are created through networks—groups of people with different bases of knowledge and experience working in together to solve problems or produce breakthroughs products or services.
But these collaborations do not need to be left to chance. We conducted a decade-long, multi-phase research program involving over 400 interviews and organizational network analysis (ONA) to analyze the network dynamics surrounding innovation. We also interviewed 160 high-performing leaders (80 men and 80 women) across 20 well-known organizations to capture rich stories of how leaders had successfully introduced an innovation.
We identified ways organizations can focus collaboration where it can create the most value—and do it in a way that does not simply overload employees with new collaborative demands that end up killing creativity and innovation.
Network mapping enables targeted innovation efforts.
A scattershot approach to innovation is not helpful. With ONA, we can assess information flow, new idea generation, problem solving and decision-making interactions through a network. Findings can then reveal critical points to promote connectivity to drive strategic innovation, investments in networks that can spur emergent innovation, ways to improve effectiveness of targeted groups like new product development teams and identify people who play roles of network brokers, connectors and energizers.
Consider one consumer products organization that had a 10,000 person R&D unit. Incremental innovations had been successfully produced by this group for years and years. But no large breakthroughs—innovations that had created the foundation of this company—had occurred for decades. This despite clear market potential to exploit opportunities across scientific disciplines. Conducting an ONA, we could see that collaboration was not occurring the way leaders expected at key junctures across scientific expertise domains. While high-profile experts within each area were connected with each other, they were less effective at engaging with people in different parts of the organization.
With the ONA, leaders identified 42 silos in the network where innovation potential existed. Then, to cross these silos, they held a range of ideation and strategic investment initiatives bringing together well-connected people and previously hidden brokers (employees with connections across silos) at lower levels in the organization. By engaging these brokers, rather than simply the high-profile experts and formal leaders, the organization began to get integrative ideas and see emergent innovation flourish.
Adaptive space capitalizes on existing network roles.
ONA reveals people playing various network roles: novel ideas emerge from brokers, are applied and iterated on through connectors and are spread throughout the organization by energizers. But in large, complex organizations, adaptive space is essential for facilitating the interplay necessary between people these roles.
Adaptive space is not a physical building or lab. It is also not necessarily permanent in nature; it can come and go, shifting based on need. Adaptive space is primarily about creating an environment to open up information flows, enrich discovery and allow ideas to advance from the entrepreneurial (informal) to the operational (formal) system.
A great example comes from my friend and colleague Michael Arena, former Chief Talent Officer at General Motors. In 2014 General Motors launched a grassroots initiative called GM 2020 to use adaptive space so individual employees could connect across teams and unleash creative potential.
One type of GM 2020 event was a Co-Lab, a 24- hour intensive challenge that was part “shark tank” and part hackathon. As many as 60 individuals from across different groups competed as small teams and pitched ideas to executive leaders. Challenges included everything from customer service opportunities to product design ideas to employee engagement issues. Other events were larger, with brokers, connectors and energizers from across functions using design-thinking methods to create and build solutions or to openly share successes that were created and could be adapted or scaled.
GM 2020 also encouraged individuals to create adaptive space, resulting in an internal Maker Space to encourage cross-group tinkering and internal TEC Talks (technology, engineering and creativity) featuring monthly presentations from internal experts.
The result of this approach at GM has been many emergent innovations, including a new process to improve buyer/supplier relationships, a millennial-friendly interviewing process and cross-departmental problem-solving sessions.
To spur innovation, organizations need to connect people. And, people in these networks need to interact in ways that allow them to see possibilities, integrate expertise and explore new and meaningful ideas. By leveraging network roles and facilitating adaptive space, forward-thinking leaders can cultivate employee networks and change the innovation game.
Take a deeper look at network roles and principles of adaptive space in the white paper Groundswell: Tapping Employee Networks to Fuel Emergent Innovation or contact us to learn more about customized network analytics for innovation.Share!