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The Innovation Kaleidoscope

Co-written by Jean Singer, co-editor of The Organizational Network Fieldbook, & Michael Soto, co-founder of Spark Collaboration.


There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages. – Mark Twain

Companies seeking to drive innovation face a great contradiction. They must somehow direct innovation and be strategic about it, while at the same time recognizing that innovation can’t entirely be directed.  How then do you manage an organization to make innovation happen?

One place to start is with what’s known about innovation – that it’s about connections. Contrary to the myth of the lone genius with a grand aha moment, innovation is neither solitary nor sudden. Rather, creative people engage with ideas, theories and issues over time, storing up information from the varied worlds around them. In a sort of cognitive kaleidoscope, items of knowledge churn and collide, and through haphazard combinations, new ideas emerge.  Thus, innovation is not the spontaneous appearance of something entirely novel but the recombining and repurposing of what already exists.

Furthermore, even a ‘great idea’ is not destined to success on its own merits alone. Creative people need to be able to communicate their ideas and work through others to bring them to fruition. For example, the iPod was not an epiphany that came to Steve Jobs in a solitary creative moment. Rather, the idea to combine an MP3 player with a hard drive and a music service came from an inventor outside of Apple, and Jobs’ genius was in grasping the product’s potential and bringing together the network of vendors and Apple employees to make it happen.

Innovation models like the Innovation Value Chain or the Innovation Spiral differ in the specific stages they outline but concur on the general process of going from idea generation to idea execution.  Underlining both of these stages is that innovation is all relational.

Idea Generation

It is through others that we are exposed to new ideas and perspectives that either reinforce or challenge our own.  As individuals, we are more likely to be creative and generate new ideas by interacting with people who run in different circles than we do.  Similarly, organizations are more creative when their departments interact and communicate effectively, not just through formal channels but also through their informal social networks.  Often, innovation takes the form of an import/export business in which people take an existing idea from one area and apply it to another.  For instance, the International Federation for The Red Cross and Red Crescent ran a program connecting staff members across countries to promote learning and development and one such conversation between an Austrian and a Bangladeshi led to the realization that the Austrian model of school based disaster risk reduction initiatives could work in Bangladesh too.

Idea Execution

As ideas are generated through a person’s web of relationships, execution of those ideas depend upon these same informal social networks as well. Many “good ideas” are shot down or stalled to death because of personal animosity, politics, or simple inability to understand them.  Support and buy-in from the right people in the right parts of the organization can help propel an idea forward and constructively identify weaknesses and solutions leading to its successful execution.

Organizational Network Analysis

While relationships are key to innovation in supporting idea generation and idea execution, they are not easily understood by traditional management practices. For organizations interested in fostering innovation, the first step is understanding how the network of relationships within the organization operates, and this can be done through Organizational Network Analysis (ONA).

Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) employs a range of techniques (including surveys, email data, sociometric badges, and interviews) to analyze and visualize how these relationships tie together into a network and what is really happening when they are interacting.

It can reveal:

  • Which departments are well-connected and which are siloed
  • Whether organizations are truly operating globally or if different regions are missing out on opportunities to share experiences and ideas
  • Whether inclusiveness is the norm or if differences among people such as gender, age, or technical discipline are creating barriers to sharing diverse points of view
  • Opinion leaders and people who broker information across organizational lines, giving a view to how influence flows and how ideas can be promoted

The result is a nuanced snapshot of how the existing relationships serve as the organizational plumbing, facilitating or hindering both idea generation and execution.  Depending upon the business objectives it may, however, be determined that a bit of organizational engineering is in order.

Organizational Engineering
As a result of running an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), companies may realize that two departments that should be working closely together are in fact not communicating much.  Or that there are bottlenecks and overload points that interfere with the free flow of information across regions.  To respond to these issues and  foster relationships across organizational boundaries, companies employ a range of techniques, including:

  • Staffing teams based on network data, with the intent purpose of creating targeted relationships across individuals and groups
  • Mentoring programs connecting junior and senior people across organizational lines
  • Brown bag lunches to raise awareness of idea or expertise available to share
  • Corporate retreats in which network data is used to structure activities bringing people together at targeted collaboration points
  • Connecting people who are themselves highly connected within their respective groups to create bridging ties across silos
  • Establishing a “Traffic Director” role in which someone is formally tasked with helping people to find others who have complementary interests and skills.

There is now another relationship-building tool that organizations can add to their arsenal,  a process called Randomised Coffee Trials, where employees are invited to opt-in to grabbing coffee with a new colleague each month. Through the Spark Collaboration platform, it is easy to set up initiatives like this to act on the strategically important connections that Organizational Network Analysis has identified. This simple process has three key strengths:.

  1. It is broadly inclusive – anyone can sign up for coffee (tea or water fine too!) with minimal time and effort invested.
  2. It is personal.  One-on-one coffees are a great way to get to know someone rather quickly. Spend 15 minutes in conversation with someone and you’ll know more about them and likely have a stronger bond than if it had been a group activity.
  3. It can be transformational.  When you are speaking to someone from a different area of expertise it forces you to simplify, and also try to understand what your colleague knows.  The process of finding common ground not only conveys information but helps you see your own work differently.  Furthermore, the feedback from a new perspective, someone who is not in the same echo chamber that you are in, can be invaluable. It is harder to talk to people who are not in your field, but the benefits for both you and the organization are huge.

This begins to make a case for inefficiency and serendipity. We are increasingly enabled by technology to find what we want, when we want it, but this also lets us focus too much.  It becomes ever easier to choose what we read and who we talk to, thereby confirming our biases by filtering out people who might disagree. And you start to think the whole world is like that, but it clearly isn’t.

You cannot predict when or where innovation will happen, and you can’t build a relationship on cue when it is needed. The unrelated conversation you have today may very well be the stepping stone to tomorrow’s big innovation.

So the question is, how do you make the innovation kaleidoscope turn?

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