Do you know who the innovators are in your organization? These aren’t just the creative product designers or the strategists devising new business models. They are also the people who make an end run around established processes, who lobby to do things differently, who proactively make connections across silos and build informal networks to get things done.
Most of them aren’t in the C-suite. In fact, in researching the impact of organizational networks on cultural change, Peter Gray, Rob Cross, and Michael Arena found that the top 50 informal influencers at one organization had network ties with nearly twice as many employees as the top 50 senior leaders. Identifying and making allies of these game changers can help leaders who are finding it difficult to drive innovation in operations, the authors tell us.
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Indeed, if you aim to foster a creative, problem-solving culture, it’s as important to find and eliminate obstacles to risky new ideas as it is to recognize your under-the-radar innovators. Ironically, some of the biggest obstacles to innovation can be the executives charged with supporting it, according to Thorsten Grohsjean, Linus Dahlander, Ammon Salter, and Paola Criscuolo. Their research into conventional processes for evaluating internal innovators’ pitches for funding found that expert panels often make biased decisions that favor “safer” ideas. They suggest changing that game — and increasing the likelihood that great ideas won’t get away — by bringing many more voices and perspectives into the process.
There’s also room to break rules in the act of innovation itself: Like any organizational practice, innovation plays out according to established ways of doing things. Hila Lifshitz-Assaf and Sarah Lebovitz write about some unexpected game changers who surfaced during a research study that centered on a time-limited innovation challenge. Some of the self-organizing teams ignored the usual sequence of ideating, narrowing focus, then prototyping, and instead used the available tools in new ways. Their process was messier, but they succeeded at the challenge where others failed.
It’s likely that in the surge of resignations upending the labor market in the U.S., some of your would-be change agents have already resolved to change the game on their own terms and walked out the door. If you take the view that innovation is rooted in an unwillingness to accept that what is is good enough, then the “Great Resignation” highlights an enormous opportunity for leaders to create new ways of working that meet employees’ needs for purpose, balance, and good wages. In this issue, we explore these ideas and others for keeping your organization at the forefront of innovation — and not just meeting challenges but reimagining them.