Innovation Teams

Tearing Down Knowledge Silos: How Changes in Science Should Impact Corporate Innovation

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In a recent feature at Big Think Daniel Honan detailed an ongoing shift within the field of biology – a move away from strictly compartmentalized disciplinary boundaries within large university and public R&D laboratories to smaller, more nimble inter-disciplinary labs. In discussing the featured example, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), Honan describes the opportunities that mixing scientists of varied background in an open lab will provide. In a number of ways, this new lab paradigm mirrors what needs to happen for corporations to, as stated by Kevin Strange, head of the MDIBL, “speed the pace and reduce the cost of discovery.” In revamping what used to be a seasonal lab into a medium-sized academic unit with a budget of $10 million and a staff of 50 employees of varied background Strange has created a very powerful incubator for innovation.

In the face of continued cut-backs to R&D many leaders in corporate environments are struggling to do more with less. Besides utilizing the principles of open innovation to leverage knowledge outside the firm, perhaps there are some other lessons to be learned from the above example to assist the Osmotic Innovator in building an innovative and productive team.

Beware if this is what your organization looks like.

Unfortunately for the corporate innovator, creating and moving a cross-disciplinary team of 50 to a remote lab to accelerate the pace of innovation isn’t likely to be met with much enthusiasm from your superiors. Start-ups, with narrow budgets and a bee-line focus on commercialization in the current VC culture, are unlikely to have the necessary breadth to emulate this model even if they have advantages in their location. So, how could this model be recreated within the corporate environment AND targeted toward meaningful innovation within a company’s strategy?

–         Hire the right people: it has been discussed on this blog before, but it is important to rehash the importance of building a team having a wide variety of skill sets. However, this principle needs to go further than just hiring one Chemist instead of a Biologist or a fresh out-of-school generalist in place of a 20 year specialist. People of varied backgrounds and viewpoints are also necessary to build a culture that can support innovation.

–         Make collaboration a necessity: the MDIBL forces its scientists to collaborate in order to move science forward and survive in the ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere of academia. The Osmotic Innovator has a number of tools to execute this, from the straightforward, such as arranging project teams to fit the model, or to the indirect, such as rearranging the floor plan to encourage spontaneous interactions.

–         Encourage experimentation: 3M famously does this by giving researchers a set amount of time to pursue personal interests, even without a commitment to such large fractions of time innovation competitions or challenges can build this type of thinking.

–         Find a way to be agile: Process is important, but having the ability to rapidly change focus, whether it be a large initiative or small project, is equally important when trying to improve the capacity to innovate. Be willing to scrap process when reasonable to boost your teams’ effectiveness in responding to new challenges or opportunities.

Organizing and operating exactly like a small research facility is perhaps an idealized view of how a research department or company can operate. However, there are a number of lessons in these models that we can learn from and leverage within our teams to improve the capacity to innovate even without massive budgets or staffs. The next time you’re wondering how a small academic unit scores big with an important discovery in the face of diminishing resources, think instead about how you can emulate their best characteristics within your team.

Playing the Fool for Innovation

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the FoolWhen most companies build their staff they focus on identifying the best talent in their industry, proudly trumpeting this as both a reason to join their company and for stockholders to take heart in their capacity to stay ahead of the competition. As discussed previously in this blog this can lead to a very narrow focus within a team, limiting diversity of thought. Can an organization work around this by finding someone that can force teams to stretch outside their comfort zones while still being a productive and regular member of the team?

In fact, the skills required for this role have been recognized for millennia. In mythology, stories are full of trickster gods that challenged the status quo, whose role seemed on the surface to be spreading discord. Take Loki from Norse mythology. In the stories, he appears to fill many roles and is even able to take many forms as a shape shifter. His role is not to govern but rather to disrupt and to agitate. Alternately the other gods love and hate him. The role of Loki is as an antagonist – his appearance in a story drives it forward and forces the other gods to take action. Even today scholars debate his intent in the stories – his presence still causing discord, discussion, and ultimately ideation. The trickster figure is complicated in myth – they are often seen as rule breakers, sometimes malicious and sometimes not, but often to positive effect. They are problem solvers and deliver solutions – often times being the source of the innovation of fire.

Even the stolid courts of the medieval period recognized this skill: the “fool” was expected to not only be funny, but to also deliver insightful and truthful commentary that would allow the leaders to more thoroughly see the world. This was the living embodiment of the trickster, an antagonist that creates change through disruption.

But what type of person can serve as the trickster or fool on your team? How can a person like this fit without being a disruption to the team and group dynamic. I would propose that this role can be filled by what we’d know as a generalist. The generalist is an individual with broad knowledge. Much like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin they can fill multiple roles and careers in their life, having interests as broad as writing a new bible, creating a university, and governing the nation in the former case and writing and publishing (including the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know Poor Richard’s Almanack), amateur science, and diplomacy in the later case. The generalist has knowledge on a variety of topics, being conversant in them while having the ability to learn and acquire subject matter expertise quickly in order to leverage their broad base of knowledge.

The generalist must also have the confidence to speak up. This is because the generalist also benefits through naivety – unencumbered by the certain knowledge of the status quo they are able to call it as they see it. When an idea has no clothes, but those close to the industry or technology are unable to recognize it, the generalist can demonstrate true sight, asking questions and revealing truth that will allow others to recognize something that can (with hindsight) seem rather obvious.

Retaining this skill is difficult though. The generalist is at a disadvantage to peers with expertise and experience in a field and needs to have the confidence and personality to speak their mind in the face of a well-organized and entrenched opposition. Further, the complex nature of the Fools role requires them to be a very special individual, curious enough to question every detail, competent enough to understand a vast array of topics, skilled in communication to deliver their true message, and social enough to be welcomed into a team without being a threat. Ignoring this critical role can ensure that your team smoothly rockets toward mediocre innovation. Having a powerful voice in this role can boost the productivity and quality of output exponentially. The successful Osmotic Innovator knows how much resource a fool can save through practical knowledge, common sense, and deep insight. The question isn’t how to get rid of the fool on their team, but how to get more of them.

Embracing your Trapeze Artist

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Diversity of thought within corporations is a key driver of innovation.  This statement is rarely challenged by those charged with building the innovation programs of companies but how often does this need for diversity actually impact the way companies hire and retain their staff base?  Often the culture of a corporation is thought of as a sort of open window, allowing many diverse individuals through and only imparting influence on their behaviors and attitudes once the individual is employed.

While this argument may be reasonable for some functions where skills are readily transferable across many different types of businesses, the key participants in your corporation’s innovation program are far more likely to rely on a very similar combination of education and experience to perform highly.  This in turn means that the effect of culture of a corporation is more like a filter than a window.

If thought diversity is a driver of successful innovation we must then recognize that the culture inherent to our innovation programs constrains the diversity available for these programs.  Common phrases such as “culture fit is the most important factor for career success around here” or “hiring a (non core specialist) is an indulgence we haven’t the resource for” are the verbalization’s of this in action.

What happens then is that you have a program full of common professionals, maybe scientists, engineers and marketers and, while there may be some variety of thought within this narrow segment, more often than not this will pale in relation to the diversity of thought in the larger world.  Think of the circus – a bunch of highly creative artists who probably see the lion tamer as the dour authoritarian compared to a pharmaceutical company where the chemist who rides a motorcycle is seen as the risk-taker by the others. The culture in these places necessarily filters the employees and creates a narrow band of thought. However big that band appears from inside it is still a narrow band.

What does this mean for your innovation program?  Should you immediately go out and recruit a trapeze artist to broaden your culture?  The reality is actually far simpler; your company culture acts in both directions, the trapeze artist is no more likely to apply for your vacancy as you are to join the circus.  Where an awareness of diversity constraint can help your program is on the odd occasion where a genuinely divergent thinker has made their way through your company’s filter.  This can occur through the recruitment of a massively talented individual whose divergence is tolerated for their skill set but more often it is the result of the normal changes in attitude and motivation that engaged employees experience over time. Unfortunately in many corporations the career path of the divergent thinker is often less than stellar and rather than encouraging this diversity the individual ends up facing a “conform or leave” decision.  Within your innovation program however these people are like gold. To bring a different “thought world” to your program while still feeling they have a place within your company is a rare set of circumstances and should be recognized as such.  The challenge for the innovation program manager is not in helping them conform but in maintaining their non-conformity.  To get the most out of their novel perspective they should also be put in high contact roles with other groups, something that can sometimes feel counter intuitive to a manager.  Managing thought diversity to improve innovation is an opportunity that only larger corporations, with significant division of labor can hope to achieve.  Unfortunately it is also one opportunity that is most easy to ignore.