3 Ways to Build a Culture of Collaborative Innovation

AUGUST 12, 2019

All organizations have the ability to be smarter than the sum of their members’ intelligence and talent. Unfortunately, most are actually dumber. The good news is there are a handful of practical steps to boost collective intelligence.

Create tools that allow everyone to communicate strategically about innovation. Good ideas can come from all corners of a company, but would-be innovators may need help developing a strong strategic argument. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the innovative government agency focused on transformational breakthroughs in national security, uses a set of simple questions called the Heilmeier Catechism (named after a former director), to think through and evaluate proposed research programs:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” [that will allow you to measure] success?

Materials science company W.L. Gore puts its key innovation criteria in the form of a one-page “Product Concept Worksheet,” which contains: a concise statement of the product concept, the technology to be utilized, the form of the product, and the customer needs that the product will address.

Either approach can easily be adjusted for use in most organizations; they provide common language that allows anyone to propose a new idea — and everyone to judge its merit.

Vet and refine ideas collectively and continuously. In nimble organizations, innovation ideas aren’t reviewed once or twice a year by a senior committee. Instead they undergo a constant process of review, refinement, and — if necessary — death. The goal is for only the best ideas to survive. In our research, we found that successful collective vetting depends on at least two things.

The first is clear, commonly understood guidelines (also known as simple rules) by which to judge proposed innovations. In an effort to rejuvenate its innovation pipeline, Corning created a set of simple rules, derived from successful past innovations:

  • address new markets with more than $500 million in potential revenue
  • leverage the company’s expertise in materials science
  • represent a critical component in a complex system, and
  • be protected from competition by patents and proprietary process expertise.

Second, diverse stakeholders are invited in early and often to help judge and refine the idea. At Gore, “passionate champions” for new innovations use the company’s tools to frame the strategic case for their idea, vetting it with customers and colleagues in the process. If the idea gains support, the champion schedules regular peer review sessions with people from manufacturing, R&D, sales & marketing, and other areas of expertise who are in a good position to judge and refine the idea. The company’s culture of frank talk drives these review sessions. People understand that their collective job is to kill bad projects as quickly as possible and accelerate those that show the most promise.

Guidelines make it easier for everyone to judge the value of new innovations and avoid large, bad bets on relatively untested ideas. Senior leaders periodically review the portfolio of project ideas that are bubbling up and knit them together, using their knowledge of organizational capabilities and market/technology trends to create organizational strategy.

Bust through barriers that block innovation. Most organizations have regular  procedures for leaders to determine which new projects should get funded and who will be assigned to these initiatives. But at nimble organizations, leadership is flipped upside down. The job of top leaders is to serve people who are close to the market. They do whatever they can to clear the way for promising new projects and get innovation teams the resources they need.

NASA’s leaders are undertaking an intensive effort to understand and transform several major barriers to innovation. They asked their employees to help; people responded with nearly 300 recommendations. Some of these aimed to encourage more idea generation by giving people more time, money, recognition, and dedicated physical space for innovation. Others focused on reducing process requirements for innovations, for instance, fast-tracking low-cost missions and giving special treatment to high-potential technologies. One proposal would require new flight programs and projects to include an element of innovation to encourage informed, appropriate R&D risk, as a means to counter the agency’s risk-averse culture. The outcome of this effort remains to be seen, but NASA’s leaders are certainly making a concerted effort to tackle the blocks to innovation.

Using these three practices, companies can harness the insights and energy of all of their people through a collective “prediction market,” in which innovation ideas are examined, improved, and pushed forward by the many, not the few. An innovation prediction market makes many small bets on new ideas at early stages, only a few of which will pan out after intensive collective vetting. In so doing, nimble companies aggregate the intelligence of their workers to better predict future success, and act to make that future real.

https://hbr.org/2019/08/3-ways-to-build-a-culture-of-collaborative-innovation

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