Fast Company

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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