To Build Up Innovation, Break Down Your Networks

I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference with quite a few interesting entrepreneurs and innovators. Several contrasts between innovators from large companies and those more accustomed to working within independent startups caught my attention. The starkest was the relative fluidity and ease with which the startup crowd circulated, made new connections, and exchanged ideas.

Entrepreneurs believe in the power of networking. Many are very good at it. They become good because they recognize that most people with interesting notions usually have only one piece of a puzzle. Often unexpected combinations of ideas, or chance meetings of people with complimentary perspectives, ignite genuine breakthroughs.

Aspiring innovators from large companies are handicapped in the networking game — not because they lack skill, but because of the nature of their jobs. Once a business is proven and profitable, the name of the game is to make operations as efficient as possible. Employees at all levels are pulled into ever more specialized roles. Repeated tasks are joined together by rigorously documented processes. As a result, each manager’s web of connections increasingly mirrors the way today’s work is organized. Most connections are with managers with closely related specialties, who share similar perspectives, shaped by the demands of the same customers.

Almost all of the executives I have spoken with understand this clearly. As a result, most innovation initiatives are guided at least in part by a desire to create unusual interactions between employees. The rate at which new ideas are generated is directly related to the effort invested in enriching social networks.

However, as we've detailed before, the idea is only Chapter One in any innovation saga. The journey from idea to fruition is long and arduous. Complicating matters, the managerial techniques that work in Chapter One have almost nothing to do with what works for the rest of the story. Too many innovation initiatives run amok because we celebrate ideas too much and understand execution too little.

For example, while enriching existing networks accelerates idea generation, breaking existing networks is often required to convert vision to reality. Breaking networks takes a deliberate effort, because networks are made up of relationships between people, and relationships are sticky. For example, once a balance of power and authority between two individuals is agreed upon, even implicitly, it is very hard to change it. Once a pattern for dividing and conquering tasks is established, it is not easy to change it. Once people invest enough in a relationship to establish genuine trust, they are reluctant to walk away from it.

Breaking networks is the only way to prepare an organization to take innovation efforts beyond mere ideas. You can train an individual about what an innovation is and why it demands different behavior, but you can’t retrain an organization simply by training the individuals within it. The individuals may acquire knowledge, but organizations are more powerful than individuals, and organizations reinforce the past.

So often in my work chronicling innovation efforts, I’ve observed major turning points for the better following substantial reorganizations. Why? Reorganizations break those involved with an innovation out of their existing network, and force them to forge new relationships and new networks from scratch.

This takes time. A colleague of mine, Zia Khan, a leading thinker on informal networks in organizations, pointed out to me that there are vast differences between communication networks and trust networks. Communication networks are the kind that are useful at the front-end of the innovation process because they enable the sharing of ideas. The back-end of the innovation process depends on trust networks, which require much heavier investments in time, energy, and goodwill.

Managers are trained to operate through formal organizational structures, policies, and processes. This is effective for making a proven business ever-more efficient, but not for driving innovation. For the latter, managers must operate through informal networks. Leaders that have a simplistic model of the innovation process — those that equate innovation with idea generation — will find ways to enhance networks and create new connections in their organizations. Those that understand the full innovation process will move deliberately from enhancing networks to breaking them, and then to rebuilding them.

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6 Comments

  • Chas Martin

    I believe innovation, real hard core breakthrough innovation, is where the barriers have to come down first. Creativity is too often the product of a single brain, lacking perspective, and consequently, critical buy in. Frans Johansson, in his book, The Medici Effect, detailed how innovation begins with intersecting ideas, cultures, values, whatever it takes. The more collaboration at the beginning, the more valuable the innovation can be.
    From there, I agree, the silos, compartmental, departmental barriers become the next hurdle.
    Tom Davenport recently published an article titled, Managing a Broad Innovation Portfolio. He cites the critical areas that have to support innovation for it to have a chance of success. It is a very concise and informative read.

  • KERMIT WILLIAMS

    DO YOUR COMPANIE INVEST IN NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENTS ITS NOT PASS THIS OWN TO COMPANIES YOU KNOW OF ! I DOCUMENTED BY THE PTO A HOUSING IDEA INNOVATION CONCEPT THIS HOUSE OF THE FUTURE CAN SAVE IN WAKE OF EXTREM WEATHERS TWISTERS AND FLOODS EVEN FIRES THIS HOUSING IDEA CAN MAKE A HOT HIT ON THE MARKET PLACE I AM LOOKING FOR INVESTORS TO FUND MY IDEA TO PUT OUT ON THE MARKET PLACE.

  • Serge Lescouarnec

    Your post reminds me of a discussion I had recently during a networking breakfast i organized with Steve Shapiro, author of Goal Free Living. We were discussing Colleges and i shared my surprise at how few college students read anything besides what they are asigned to and also their apparent lack of curiousity. I guess this narrow focus leads to the 'silos' mentality and does not bread creativity and flexibility.
    As an entrepreneur, I have learned that I do not know what the next job/client I get for my Concierge Service (Montclair Concierges and New Jersey Concierges) will entail. Instead of being nervous about it I have learned to embrace the diversity it brings.

    As for the networking, I do as much of it online through my blog connections, which go from TechCrunch to Wine Blogging Wednesdays and many people in different countries.

    I also recently started contributing to the Newsvine (based in Seattle.

    Have a good day

    Serge
    www.njconcierges.com
    www.montclairconcierges.com

    My Blog:
    www.sergetheconcierge.typepad....

  • Irwin Glenn

    Spot on from Zia Khan.

    A human network is exactly about trust. A systems network, including a hierarchy based role network (all government agencies and almost all corporate structures), resembles a pre-defined pyramid. Pyramids get very fragile at the bottom. The top is too far from the base to be in contact and consequently gets noise instead of signal.

    A true human trust network is one built on absolute trust (even when trust is broken) and the trust bond is either repaired or dropped. This organic network is the only sustainable and adaptable network that scales to any number of points of people.

    Demanding that each person live with perfect integrity will create a perfect integrity network. This encourages all people in the network to assist all others they connect with to keep their integrity. This is achievable in our lifetime.

    All people will then understand the true power of creation and innovation that generate a human economy (Bionomics).

    Prosperity, Peace and Power To All People.

  • Chris Brogan...

    This is a great post. I've been thinking about swarms lately as the model. Give people the target and let them gather en mass to build momentum and crash through. (In other terms: throw away titles and direct job descriptions in favor of smashing out a new innovation). This gets us as far as hitting the mark.

    Then, a shift is required, away from the swarm and back to the gentle hive mind, where the goal is to maintain the new structure, feed it, nourish it.

    I think people function well in one or the other mindset, but rarely both. I'm not much for sustaining, but I love to snap the boundaries and do something new. It takes both kinds, right?

    -Chris of [chrisbrogan.com]

  • Richard Lipscombe

    Chris

    It is good to see someone stepping outside the box on the subject of networking. Networking is a good thing to help maintain "continuity"... It is a good thing to help maintain a "culture" ( the way things are done around here)... It is not a good thing when you are trying to do things differently or do different things... Innovation comes from those who invest in incubating ideas into prototypes which they launch quickly to their customers or colleagues... They launch and learn... They either fail quickly or they begin to create a "new continuity"... This new continuity has different requirements to the old one... It invarialby has new people promoting it, a new core idea behind it, and a new culture emerging around it.... If it is incumbered by the old network of conventional group thinking (eg value add, line extensions, etc), with a strategic focus on what we do best rather than what is of real use for the customer then any innovation will be killed off early in its gestation period.... But if the old network can be left behind or kept out of the way then innovation can spread like a virus (see Seth Godin)... It can become an epidemic very quickly (see Malcolm Gladwell)... Once this cycle begins, the real issue is how best to consolidate this innovation into an efficient and effective asset for the company, the customers, the industry, etc...

    Richard Lipscombe