How to Create an Innovation Ecosystem

To Increase InnoHere is an excerpt from an article written by Art Markman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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When we talk about innovation, we often focus on individuals. Take the endless fascination with Steve Jobs as an innovative leader, or our innate tendency to attribute a discovery to a single inventor. In business, we generally identify good innovators and nurture their ability to generate creative practical solutions to new problems. There is less focus on the kinds of structures that promote a culture of innovation.

At the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas, we have been exploring the ecosystem of innovation using the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) as a model. While traditional incubators focus on providing inexpensive space and business advice for new companies, ATI, under director Isaac Barchas, helps early-stage technology companies to get their first round of funding.

The program functions a lot like a coral reef for start-ups. In the ocean, a reef provides a structure that protects fish, provides food, and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive.

Likewise, ATI brings together new companies, experienced business leaders, faculty researchers, government officials, established technology companies, and investors. This environment provides those new companies with a wealth of technical expertise, business experience, and access to capital that supports innovation in the early stages of growth.

Many large organizations innovate in a different way. They often have internal experts on idea generation or external consultants who work with groups to generate ideas. At that point, existing business units within the company take on the task of pushing a new idea forward until it can be brought to market.

If your organization relies heavily on individual innovation, consider creating your own innovation reef, where creative problem-solving experts develop a network of individuals skilled in bringing new ideas to market. There are three essential elements to creating this in your company.

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Markham discusses each, then concludes: “A core aim of an innovation reef is that the innovation network within a company is responsible for creating a structure that promotes innovation, but need not govern the innovation outcomes. The positive element of creating a broad innovation ecosystem is that groups involved in innovative projects will reach out to each other directly to solve problems rather than requiring a central office to mediate all communications. This loosely-coupled structure helps to create a culture of innovation, rather than top-down governance, allowing innovative ideas to not only be formed — but also thrive and grow.”

To read the complete article, please click here.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently editor of the journal Cognitive Science, and consults regularly through his company Maximizing Mind. Follow him on twitter @abmarkman. His latest book is Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done, published by Perigee Trade (2012).

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