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Not One of Us

Posted by Mark Bennett on April 19, 2009


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What can we do to foster Innovation? Support diverse networks that promote new, perhaps even heretical, thinking:

There’s safety in numbers
When you learn to divide
How can we be in
If there is no outside
All shades of opinion
Feed an open mind
But your values are twisted
Let us help you unwind
             – “Not One of Us,” Peter Gabriel

Although originally written with a political message, these lyrics describe a common occurrence within companies that stifles Innovation. It’s that we tend to form into groups of like-minded people and start to see things in terms of “Us and Them” (to quote Roger Waters.) These divisions in companies often follow the organizational structure, whose purpose was originally to help make things like command and control, decision rights, and resource utilization more “efficient.” Matrix organizations were introduced to try to solve some of the problems with hierarchical organizations, but there are still a lot of problems that remain, including those which are obstacles to Innovation.

As we discussed before, there isn’t a magic recipe for innovation, but there are plenty of ways to mess up the cake. To help understand how, let’s capture the problems associated with failure of innovation into two categories, as described in the excellent “Driving Results Through Social Networks” by Rob Cross and Robert J. Thomas:

  1. The inability to recognize opportunities and recombine expertise (in-house or accessible through extended networks)
  2. The inability to test and prototype ideas rapidly when people do recognize opportunities

We can imagine situations where some companies* might not experience either or both of these problems often, if at all. However, many companies do experience these problems and their ability to gain competitive advantage through innovation suffers as a result. Cross and Thomas identify three key obstacles that contribute to the problems described above:

  • Fragmentation – The kind of collaboration needed to more frequently recognize opportunities, recombine expertise, and rapidly test and prototype ideas breaks down right along organizational boundaries. This could be breakdown of integration and collaboration along functional lines, industry or product specialties, technical competencies, etc.
  • Domination – Within a given group there are likely members with a lot of expertise/credibility, which was often acquired in the past when times were good. Their voices can often drown out novel ideas and/or drive innovation along traditional paths when what’s really needed is an entirely new approach.
  • Insularity – Groups are often completely unaware of expertise outside that might very well be the key, most effective way to do something. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome is a classic example of this effect.

How can we overcome these obstacles? A good approach is to support networks that cross organizational boundaries. Those kinds of networks help encourage integration and collaboration that would otherwise be absent due to fragmentation. They also help identify expertise outside of the normal confines of an insular group. And by diversifying the sources of expertise, the ability for an entrenched way of thinking to dominate is lessened.

But it isn’t enough to simply tell everyone to sign up and “get connected.” Software that supports the formation of networks is a very useful tool, but it won’t be effective if incentives run counter to collaboration, if goals are in continuous opposition between business units, etc. In short, the culture must at least give the individuals, and the tools they use to collaborate, enough support that it’s worth their while, as well as the company’s. This requires management to not only support, but also to participate in, the use of these tools and collaboration efforts.

* They might be, for example, companies where testing and prototyping ideas rapidly is fairly easy (internet technology companies come to mind) and sure enough, you see a typically higher frequency of innovation in those companies (which is, not coincidentally, very much the whole driving force behind their businesses.)

5 Responses to “Not One of Us”

  1. [...] Not One of Us [...]

  2. [...] we experience today came to be is often flawed. This flaw can then blind us to approaches that help foster innovation. It’s comments like, “Vague, but exciting” written on 20-year old proposals, which serve to [...]

  3. [...] No, this isn’t a pitch to start letting Hollywood stars provide input into your innovation process. We’ve already seen what happens with ill-considered application of Hollywood business models. Rather, you’ve probably heard of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” and how it sprung up from the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation.” While the game is amusing in its own right and the concept behind it is primarily around the “small world phenomenon”, it also can help us understand a bit more how social networks can deliver business value by helping overcome the obstacles that hinder innovation. [...]

  4. [...] that many customers must be consulted and several iterations are required.  Second, it takes a diverse set of talents – technical, functional, user experience – working together and [...]

  5. [...] experience it in their own individual way. This is where the power of shared purpose combined with diverse contribution makes itself felt. The shared purpose is a shared belief, a shared passion, a compelling emotion [...]

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