Make Innovation Flow Through Companies

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A year ago during my MBA Knowledge Management course with Dr. Michael Zhang, I received an assignment to read multiple papers. At the time, two of them (1 & 2) struck me as they were related to one of my issues: efficiently spreading new technologies through my R&D organization.

It is surprising to imagine that an organization of 30 enthusiast engineers, both young and old, had difficulties sharing innovation. But the clues were there: many of them were frustrated that ideas shared and presented a year ago were finally rediscovered and used in our products. As I have been digesting these two papers for a year, I want to share the leads I found to help my organization and discuss which promising ones I would explore in the future to unlock the full innovative potential of the organization with which I work.

There are four majors points about innovation that an R&D organization such as the one in which I was working should consider:

  • The organization is shaped by a network of individuals. Mapping and qualifying them offers the opportunity to adjust it to run more smoothly
  • Innovation sharing must be fostered by management to work efficiently
  • Engineering organizations, and especially IT ones, suffer from a severe “not invented here” syndrome that must be cured
  • Scouting ideas the beginning of the journey, not the end

Organizational network

A group of humans is not equal in their communication channels: some individuals will tend to communicate with everybody, while others will tend to focus on fewer links. According to the theory of employee networks, there are different types of profiles: Idea Scouts, Idea Connectors, and Regular Engineers. Idea scouts specialize in monitoring the market to find new ideas. Idea Connectors spread the ideas efficiently using the correct channels and forms. Idea Connectors can be natural communicators or be appointed to a position of redistributing information. I am convinced that a part of my engineers’ frustrations arose from the fact that ideas were not spreading despite their efforts to do so.

A fantastic tool exists to help identify the different types of profiles within your organization in the form of Organizational Network Analysis. This gives you the ability to establish links between all employee in a nonintrusive manner by surveying your organization. (I will write an article about that in the future, for now, you can refer yourself to these two links if you are curious Journal of Biomedical Informatics,

MIT Sloan reports that when used correctly and openly disclosed, this mapping helps the scouts to directly refer to the go-to connectors to get their findings shared. I believe that in an environment where the management cultivates trust within the teams, opening the mapping can be very positive and this is exactly what I personally cherish.

Foster innovation sharing

When fostering innovation sharing, it is imperative to keep in mind that the environment is essential at all levels. In my previous company (Etix Everywhere), we had the chance to work in an environment, favoring it:

  1. from a physical point of view, the whole R&D Lab was working on the same open space, facilitating direct communication. But, we were moving for every launch or coffee break in the common kitchen that was acting as a point of peering to exchange news and ideas with the rest of the company
  2. on a bi-monthly basis, team building activities and open sprint reviews helped to build a horizontal dynamic between organizations
  3. Our methodologies of work relied highly on peer programming, favoring the free communication inside the teams and creating a fertile substrate to exchange around good practices, at first through new technologies in guilds meeting
  4. every time somebody was going to a fair, it was mandatory for him to do a lightning talk about the major points that he had seen during his event
  5. we organized many meet-ups, bringing innovation from the outside and strengthening our bonds with the communities of practice

Not invented here syndrome

A point that can hinder the spread of innovation is the disease that I encounter at different stages of severity in all IT engineering organizations that I had worked with: the not-invented-here syndrome.

In programming, […] “NIH syndrome” as the tendency towards reinventing the wheel based on the belief that in-house developments are inherently better suited, more secure, more controlled, quicker to develop, and incur lower overall cost than using existing implementations. — Wikipedia

To fight it, I relied on bringing more seniority in the teams and helped them to challenge each choice by making it business-driven. In such a case, senior people acted probably as connectors, broadcasting the idea that external technologies can be positively used by advocating them.

The innovation pipeline

The last thing is that an idea cannot be just scouted and pushed inside the organization but instead must go through a process to offer it a chance to reach the production stage, especially in less than a year as I introduced the topic. To do so, MIT Sloan suggests the following four-gate process that makes sense:

  1. Ideation: the idea is scouted externally
  2. Selection: the idea is pushed inside the organization through connectors. I believe that it is at this moment that an idea champion must follow an idea and check how it is perceived at the next steps.
  3. Diffusion: the organization absorbs the idea to test and integrate it into products. I think for functional ideas, Design Sprint is the perfect tool to asses them. For technical ones, weekend or Friday afternoon projects and hackathons are nice ways to experiment with them.
  4. Exploitation: the idea is put into production through a new product release.

To conclude, making innovation flow through an organization is never an easy task. Many issues rise up as barriers to change. But, a properly designed organization can definitively help to remove as much friction as possible, reducing the lag between the moment an idea appears in the wild and is captured by your organization. This is a real win-win situation if it further helps to reduce the frustration of your scout, who wants to share the best of what he or she finds with the rest of your organization.