Innovation is an essential skill in the quest for sustained competitive advantage. The commercialisation of new products, processes and services is a top priority for businesses seeking increase market share and long term success. We have changed how we talk about business to emphasise innovation as a forward-thinking paradigm shift, but successful innovation may be less about the words we say and more about how we listen.
Great innovations aren’t always feats of genius, serendipity, or expertise. They are frequently conceived by seemingly disparate ideas that integrate together. Our ability to look outside our bubble and truly understand a wide variety of people, topics and industries creates fertile soil for innovation. The associations between those diverse inspirations forge previously unexplored connections.
In The Innovators DNA, Jeffrey Dyer interviewed 3,000 creative innovators. He tells the story of how Pierre Omidyar envisioned eBay as the integration of three disparate ideas. Pierre was part of a booming internet company, his fiancée collected rare Pez dispensers, and he learned that classified ads were ineffective. This integration of the internet, oddball collectors, and classified advertising became one the world’s most innovative and successful online marketplaces.
If we can more deeply understand what’s different from us, we’ll be able to visualise “dots” in our network that are otherwise invisible. Partnerships between companies will break down siloed working by fuelling idea generation across traditional walls. And if we’re lucky, we can better connect ideas together and build new paths to innovation.
Listening may sound simple, but we don’t often do it. Our world is severely siloed. We cluster in tribes, preferring the company of people who think just like us. The worlds of artists or doctors seem alien to us in business. They have their own buildings, their own degrees, their own languages. They are so separate that we call them different “sectors” and rarely do they integrate.
In particular, the arts and sciences have always been in competition, to everyone’s detriment. When the National Endowment for the Humanities was formed in 1964, its vision was clairvoyant. “If the interdependence of science and the humanities were more generally understood, men would be more likely to become masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”
Indeed, technology is now less concerned with better understanding computers than understanding humans. Our effort to manufacture handheld devices is inherently a fusion of science and humanities, and this is why innovation is so essential to technology. In a bold prediction Walter Isaacson said, the “one thing that will help restore the link between the humanities and the sciences is the human-technology symbiosis that has emerged in the digital age.”
Innovators see connections that aren’t there. It’s what makes them seem a little crazy. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Yet, in a technology renaissance, we must shift from seeing innovation as an inherent trait of geniuses and build it into our systems. Innovative systems make advancements by learning about and connecting far-flung concepts. They then integrate them into something that never existed before. In that way, future innovations are more artful curation than invention.
But are “collaboration” and “integration” just more buzzwords?
The core principles of integration and collaboration is that the best ideas come from unexpected places. Ground-breaking innovations aren’t rooted in expertise or grown in linear branches. Sometimes the best ideas are found by cutting down traditions, breaking them into pieces, grafting them together, and reimagining them in new forms. Breaking your company hierarchy can shift power toward new ideas and open your company for experimentation.
You can do this by:
- Deepening team interactions: In order to build a culture of collaboration, interactions between team members must facilitate deep listening and engagement. To increase the likelihood of innovative dot connecting, strengthen relationships between team members and between departments.
- Empowering mavericks: They need room to take risks, be controversial, and be wrong. Let them challenge the status quo without jeopardising their standing within the company. They may even rub you the wrong way. Celebrate where they create discomfort as it may bring you closer to understanding.
- Inspire intrapreneurs: Design processes to receive ideas and feedback from your team. Requiring ideas to flow up a traditional management structure can destine them for failure. Build channels to authentically listen to ideas that may be unpopular.
- Embrace partnerships: Look outside your own team to the expertise of your partners. Meaningful collaborations with other companies can multiply your reach while letting you observe different ways of working.
An example of breaking hierarchy is an “entrepreneur in residence” such as those employed by, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills or Harvard, or Google. These ‘intrapreneurs’ are empowered to ask questions, challenge the status quo and give innovators a voice. Innovation is literally in their job description.
Flattening your team’s hierarchy puts your ear to the ground so you can gain a deeper understanding below the obvious.
The revolution starts with you. You must change to see a change in your organisation. To work differently, open your mind to new ideas and approaches. Give yourself room to learn a new way of working by observing, listening, questioning, associating, experimenting, and sometimes failing.
According to legend, the co-founders of Twitter integrated the ideas of vehicle dispatch (i.e. CB radio communication), the human desire for journaling (i.e. LiveJournal), and the brevity of text SMS to create Twitter. They seemed like weird inspirations at the time. Yet now their integration seems obvious.
You can break out of your routine by:
- Swimming in the opposite direction. The freedom or silliness of unconventional thinking, even when not fruitful, can keep projects fun. It can also create a culture where individuals look at problems in a new way.
- Applying old knowledge in new ways. Use scenarios from different real world situations to illuminate new paths to discovery. Interdisciplinary teams can break down barriers, build shared language, and encourage active collaboration. SMEs can also be more innovative than well-resourced companies because they inherently work against the grain. They’re doing things differently because that’s just who they are.
- Building your network. If your organisation is a closed system, it won’t bring in as many new ideas. So grow a diverse network around you and your ideas. Become partners with new and unexpected companies. Help empower the voices of organisations who might be silenced or unfunded. Operate in new social circles. Read different content. Eat lunch with different people. Then once you’ve developed the power of a diverse network, become a matchmaker and share it. Co-mingle different people and ideas. Your partners can learn to value you for the creative conversations. Innovation through collaboration can become your currency.
An example of shaking up a routine is Procter & Gamble’s famous “Connect + Develop” program. They empowered their R&D scientists to move to countries across the world. Their challenge was to learn from governments, universities, and industries who were innovating and then bring those ideas back into the company.
When we look at a problem, our brains have attention bias. They naturally impose focus and order, usually based on ourselves and our experiences. This doesn’t leave much room for new ideas to thrive.
It takes a diverse team, culture of listening, and a strong network of partners to cultivate a deep understanding of ‘dots’. Combining all of those ideas in strange combinations is what integrates them into new, innovative ideas.
You can never solve a problem entirely yourself, and sometimes you’re bringing the old baggage to the new path forward. So take a step back and refocus your efforts and build a culture of collaboration. In the words of Richard Branson, “A-B-C-D. Always Be Connecting the Dots.”
Building an open culture of collaboration isn’t easy. It digs deep to your core values. But done well, integration and collaboration can be a systematic way to innovate and become the economic engine for your company. I’ll let Steve Jobs have the final word…