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Workplace innovation: How to connect across teams

June 14, 2011

This past weekend, I listened to a webcast of IESE Professor Paddy Miller’s talk at the 2011 World Innovation Forum.  I punched my fists in the air in total agreement when he said that one giant insight of innovation was the huge disconnect between senior management and operational/executional teams.

Amen, brother.

Company executives can talk, brainstorm and plan all they want.  But if a chasm exists between their ideas and how/whether their teams execute on them, then you’re stuck in creative la-la land, not a charmed innovative one.

Creativity or Innovation?

People have been harping on the distinction between creativity or ideation vs. innovation.  It bears repeating here, if only to set up my argument.  We are all inherently creative, improvisational creatures.  Adulthood, social norms and traditional command-and-control workplace cultures may have conditioned that out of our psyches, but it’s still in there, inside us all and waiting to be expressed.  With the right environment, it can and will resurface.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a more complex beast.  Creativity is but one piece of the puzzle.  Strategic thinking, a systemic mindset, operational precision and effective, authentic inter-departmental communication are other critical elements.  Most of all, a truly innovative enterprise has figured out the sweet spot between all of the above, DELIGHTING the customer and consequently turning a PROFIT.

The Disconnect

So…back to the disconnect between senior leadership and the rest of the company.  This harms innovation both ways.  If leaders design innovation activities in their ivory tower, without gaining insights into operational or customer realities from their teams, chances of a successful venture are diminished.  And if teams brainstorm willy-nilly without strategic input and guidance from their leaders, then innovative energy is scattered at best.

The Solution(s)

What’s to be done, then?

  • Create and maintain an open culture of communication.  This is sometimes easier said than done, but certainly not impossible to change.  Staff need to feel like their voice is valid and recognized.  It needs to take root at ALL levels, from the C-suite on down.  It requires exhaustive degrees of inter-departmental and company-wide communication.  It demands a review of hiring and training practices, to ensure that employees understand and (ideally) are naturally inclined to collaborate rather than insulate.  It necessitates the reduction or elimination of political fiefdoms, through a combination of zero tolerance for back-biting and a fundamental shift of reward and recognition schemes (Daniel Pink’s work is a great introduction to modern-day motivation).
  • Adopt a systems view to innovation.  The most innovative companies do not silo their efforts.  Innovation is simply part of their lifeblood.  From talent management to internal collaboration platforms to social media tools, successful organizations are adopting a systems approach to identify and address the communication roadblocks that may thwart innovative outcomes.
  • Try stealthstorming.  If the two (largely) top-down ideas above seem too daunting, and like you need to boil the ocean, then consider a guerrilla, bottoms-up tactic instead.  Paddy Miller’s idea of stealthstorming is the antithesis of brainstorming.  It calls upon the ingenuity and savvy of intrapreneurs to conceptualize, grow, sell and eventually operationalize an innovative strategy.
  • Always remember why you’re innovating.  Do not innovate just for its own sake, nor because the rest of the world has decided it’s the hip and trendy thing to do.  Start with the ‘why’ in mind.  Think about the bigger picture, not just about getting your pet idea out there.  If you work for a large company, stay up-to-date on the organization’s plans and goals and design your innovative ideas to align with or amplify those goals.  Even if you want to engage in disruptive innovation, be mindful of the competitive landscape so that you can present a cogent case to your internal stakeholders.  And if you’re an entrepreneur, test (and protect) your idea at every step of the way so that it has the best possible chance of success.
I’ll leave it there for now.  What do you think about the points listed above?  What are some other important cultural factors to consider when building communication bridges during innovation?  Please comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

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