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3 Ways to Build a Culture of Collaborative Innovation

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Kate Isaacs and Deborah Ancona for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kate Isaacs is a research affiliate at the MIT Leadership Center, a partner at Dialogos Generative Capital, and an Executive Fellow at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership. She helps companies and multi-stakeholder collaboratives create social and economic value through trust-based relationships. Dr. Isaacs holds a PhD in Organization Studies from the MIT Sloan School of Management and an M.S. degree in Technology and Policy from the MIT Engineering Systems Division.

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management, a Professor of Organization Studies, and the Founder of the MIT Leadership Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. She is the coauthor, with Henrik Bresman, of X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed (Harvard Business School Press) and coauthor of “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” (Harvard Business Review).

 

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