Want to Boost Innovation? Cultivate Employee Networks

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Ninety percent 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 the ongoing innovation needed for business growth or adapting 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 from a lone genius or an isolated R&D team. Innovation is created through networks, groups of people with different bases of knowledge and experience working together to solve problems or produce breakthroughs. These collaborations do not need to be left to chance.

I was part of a decade-long, multiphase research program involving more than 400 interviews and using organizational network analysis (ONA) to analyze the network dynamics of innovation. As part of the program, we also interviewed 160 high-performing leaders (80 men and 80 women) across 20 well-known organizations to capture rich stories of how leaders successfully introduce innovation.

We identified ways organizations can focus collaboration in the places where it can create the most value — and do so in a way that does not simply overload employees with new demands that kill 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. This analysis can reveal critical points to promote connectivity to drive strategic innovation. It can also help us identify investments in networks that can spur emergent innovation; ways to improve the effectiveness of targeted groups; and people who play the roles of network brokers, connectors, and energizers.

Consider one consumer products organization with a 10,000-person R&D unit. This group had successfully produced incremental innovations for years and years, but no large breakthroughs — innovations that had previously created the foundation of this company — had occurred for decades. Yet, there was 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 in addition to the high-profile experts and formal leaders, the organization began to see integrative ideas and emergent innovation flourish.

Adaptive Space Capitalizes on Existing Network Roles

ONA reveals the 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 to facilitating the necessary interplay between 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 of 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 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 openly sharing successes that could be adapted or scaled.

GM 2020 also encouraged individuals to create adaptive space, resulting in an internal makerspace that encouraged cross-group tinkering and regular TEC (technology, engineering, and creativity) Talks from internal experts.

Many emergent innovations resulted from GM 2020, 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. 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.

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, a cofounder and research director of the Connected Commons, and author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being.

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By Rob Cross