The practice of innovation is changing. Once relegated to R&D and product/service improvements, today’s innovation practices address corporate culture change with a reach extending far into the inner workings of the organization, impacting how people collaborate, business processes, and even business models. At the helm of this change is often a newly appointed Chief Innovation Officer, who, together with a small staff of innovators, often acts as a control tower for planning and executing sweeping improvements in how the business of innovation is carried out.
The emergence of the Chief Innovation Officer role is an important development in the practice of innovation, reflecting an increasing corporate desire for innovation to be enterprise wide. However, for this desire to become a reality, the Chief Innovation officer must also consider the different innovation spaces: the mind space, the physical space inside and outside the organization, and the virtual space. These spaces, taken together, represent an important key to enterprise-wide innovation, and, to achieving broad employee engagement in innovation and high-impact business results.
Knowing when and how to cycle between them is in fact the new frontier in the practice of innovation.
Why is employee engagement in these different spaces important? Innovation is first about people who come together for a purpose and share their expertise, and it is about enabling those people to also operate alone and reflect on those interactions and take action on them.
People are the connective tissue in an organization that allows different thoughts and new ideas to come together and travel across different innovation spaces, changing and reforming along the way. This connectivity of people and ideas “bumping into” each other is the Bump Rate. By understanding and enabling how the Bump Rate can be fostered across the different innovation spaces, the Chief Innovation officer can provide the right framework with which to create and capture that innovation spark. Doing this actually implies a mental shift in how the role of the Chief Innovation Officer’s is carried out, i.e. away from a control tower mentality and toward a conductor mentality – guiding and enabling the right mix of people, ideas and perspectives to create a dynamic and thriving innovation ecosystem.
Mind space — fostering an innovator’s mindset
Open, innovative minds share several characteristics:
- Positivity: The innovator’s mind is a climate of can-do
- Courage: A fearlessness of taking risk
- Developmental thinking and stewardship: The ability to nurture and grow an idea before it’s ready for prime-time
Truly breakthrough innovation is often that which defies convention to deliver new value. It’s often the product of several different insights and ideas combined.
In order to process seemingly random or opposing thoughts and information, the human brain must be open to new connections and aware of the blocks (often ingrained paradigms or more) that will prevent those connections from occurring. Also contained in a person’s mind are beliefs about the organization, its culture, and its values. By keying into these mental models, we can derive insight into how people’s attitudes and beliefs are affecting an organization’s innovation climate.
For example, employees might say, “Our VP would never let us do that.” To change this attitude, we first will record it and create awareness of it. By understanding why and how it exists, we gain understanding into how it is affecting innovation output in total.
The way we visibly interact is in fact a manifestation of what is in our (invisible) mental fields. Simple shifts in assumptions can actually shift the mind space and alter the way people treat each other. Language is also a key indication of mindspace. Conversations with “Yes, but’s” and “No, because’s” indicate a more closed mindspace and tend to thwart cooperation and innovation. Consciously shifting to language like “Yes, and …” together with “My build on your idea is …” significantly changes the climate for innovation from competitive to cooperative.
An innovator’s mindset is also one of developmental thinking and “stewardship” – that is, nurturing and protecting ideas until they can take hold in the organization. Ideas when they are born are very fragile, so adopting the mindset of overcoming barriers and strengthening ideas before they are ready for evaluation is an essential mindset and innovator habit. The Chief Innovation Officer can play a crucial role here by displaying both the mindset of courage and fortitude to adjust organizational practices and approaches while simultaneously displaying flexibility in thinking to recast new ideas until both the idea and organization can come together.
Mind space sets climate; climate is key for innovation to thrive. Translating this mindspace explicitly in day-to-day organizational behaviors and interactions needs to become a core innovation practice. If done well, it can align people around common goals, energize them, and even attract other innovators outside of the organization to the company’s innovation cause.
The Physical Innovation Space
Physical innovation space is actually a rich and multifaceted space that includes both meeting and individual workspace. It needs to be considered far more broadly than traditional spaces such as conference rooms or work stations. It also needs to include the informal spaces inside an organization (think water cooler as a metaphor for a space where people informally gather), as well as how to extend innovation spaces outside the organization. Getting rid of the big conference table and instead having smaller more intimate “rounds, ” comfortable chairs, color, and natural light can be more inspiring than a traditional white-walled clinical conference room.
Informal internal innovation space is equally important for innovation and is less often formally considered in innovation. These types of physical spaces can include hallways, cafeterias, coffee stations, atriums, etc. Innovative organizations deliberately design these spaces to foster those seemingly random sparks (remember the bump rate) that create innovations.
One company installed coffee stations every 50 feet in its hallways even though consultants who wanted to reduce costs suggested taking them out. Another banned eating lunch at desks to encourage people to get up and “bump and connect” with each other. And yet another installed chalkboards and couches in long hallways connecting buildings to change them from corridors where people move quickly along, to collaboration spaces for impromptu gatherings and more random bumping.
Consideration of external innovation spaces are also part of a robust set of innovation practices. These “discovery” spaces come in different flavors, but two in particular help the brain break down those blocks to innovative thinking. First is the customer space – visiting your customers where they are, rather than inviting them in for a focus group. Second is the analogous world space, in which insights are derived from other business’ or industries’ practices. You may take a group of people working on an innovation challenge to places where your customers frequent outside of your own category, to get a better understanding of their needs and interests.
The new practice of innovation needs to define deliberate strategies for leveraging these various dimensions of physical spaces. Doing so can significantly enhance an organization’s ability to foster the kind of fresh connections that can lead to big shifts in the way everyone thinks and innovates.
The Virtual Innovation Space
The virtual space is a critical space for innovation as it effectively enables scale and broad employee engagement across organizations boundaries, geographies and time zones. While physical space can foster deep engagement and is really useful in seeking alignment, decision-making and team-building, it can be difficult to get all the right participants together at the same time, and it can be expensive to organize.
In an online engagement, a shorter cycle of participation can encourage involvement. “Take two minutes to enter an idea or add to others’ ideas” can be more palatable than “in the next eight hours we are going to pull all the thoughts hiding in the crevices of your mind.”
When participating in an online innovation challenge, the brain has more of an opportunity to process what’s happening. It provides the flexibility for a participant to reflect on what they’ve experienced, then go back in and add valuable insights in the form of a new idea, a comment, etc. Further, in an online environment the meeting space is extended in time and breadth, while still providing leadership control over participation and agenda.
Ultimately, the virtual space accomplishes two important tasks related to enterprise innovation. By gathering insights, ideas and opportunities in an online environment, you ensure these innovation elements will scale. As mentioned earlier, breakthrough innovation is often the product of several different insights and ideas combined. The right virtual environment will help you crash these insights and ideas in new ways, revealing hidden truths about your market, or your competitors, or your organization at large (including your suppliers, employees and customers).
Second, the right online environment will enable innovation leaders to filter and select the most useful ideas, then help them track those ideas throughout the implementation process. It’s one thing to capture ideas; the real work comes in monitoring those ideas’ evolution into projects by using a stage-gate or similar process.
These virtues of physical space do not imply that it is an either/or proposition – either we use the physical space or virtual. Rather, the new practice of innovation requires the pulsing between both these spaces, supported by the right mindspace.
Spaces as the new practice of innovation
Physical space helps promote deep engagement, while the virtual space allows you to capture what you’ve learned in the physical space and turn it into something real. The mind space cuts across both aspects.
The new practice of innovation leverages the strengths of each individual space and integrates their usage into a comprehensive innovation approach that can drive engagement and momentum for innovation.
For example, an innovation initiative can start in the physical space – with a small core team, working together to first establish the right climate for collaboration, and then deeply engaging in the aspects of the challenge, framing and reframing the innovation opportunity to tease out key themes for ideation. These themes can then be explored in the virtual space – by seeking the input, knowledge and ideas of many others (hundreds or thousands) inside and outside the organization, and giving each individual time to think and reflect in their own mindspace.
Themes can also be explored in the physical discovery spaces outside an organization – leveraging customers, experts and analogous worlds. The output of these explorations and mining of ideas can then be synthesized in the physical space – formally or informally, in random conversations or formal workshops, or a combination of both – where decisions are made around most promising opportunities.
Finally, key opportunities can be pulsed back out into the virtual space to solicit more thinking, builds and buy in from wider audiences inside and outside the organization. In this way, an organization gets the thinking and support of many extended stakeholders while still keeping accountability for moving the innovation project forward, communications, and decision-making with a smaller core team.
A leading pediatric nutrition company used this approach to design a new process for innovation. A cross-functional group at the company came together in the physical space to first establish the right climate and mindset for their creative collaboration, and then to begin the ideation together. Once they had several promising ideas around the new process design, they then leveraged an online collaboration tool to engage various stakeholders more broadly in the organization, and to help further develop and strengthen those beginning ideas. In this way, they enabled the participation of many other voices across the organization and disabled the “Not Invented Here syndrome.” The final process design was then compiled in a face to face session with the core cross functional group working with the feedback and discussing its implication for the innovation process design.
The new CIO: A conductor for innovation
To be successful at building a sustainable innovation capability, the job description of today’s CIO needs to read more like a team coach or steward who orchestrates the usage of these different spaces and shepherds people through them. This person must promote boundary-spanning bump rates across the organization. A Chief Innovation Officer who guides the flow and rhythm of innovation, who engages the workforce via different innovation spaces, will have more lasting business impact. He or she will help the whole organization realize new pinnacles of innovation success.
As with all innovation efforts, increasing your confidence and success rate in this new practice requires purposeful, deliberate experimentation. While individual mastery can be a multi-year journey, it is crucial to get started now and make progress as there’s a prize at play: the development of a thriving innovation ecosystem. In this environment the roles, structures and networks of collaborators are fluid and dynamic, forming and reforming across different innovation spaces, based on the changing context and priorities of the business.
Fundamentally, this ecosystem enables not just innovation and business success but also high levels of employee engagement and a culture of trust, loyalty and collaboration. And it is through this vibrant culture that an organization will thrive, rather than just survive or, at worst, decay.
image credit: team meeting image from bigstock
Elisa O’Donnell is VP, Innovation Solutions at Imaginatik. Innovation catalyst, coach, trainer, and facilitator, Elisa works with executives at the individual, team and organizational level to drive business through innovation.