Configuring your organization for innovation: More than smart people and cool platforms

By Michael Kirven

While a hundred years ago innovation may have been the product of a genius working out of a basement, today it's more typically a product of teamwork. In order to achieve sustained innovation, companies must create an environment that facilitates organization-wide collaboration.

Companies are realizing that creativity grows exponentially when you get people together, and this partially accounts for the radical rethinking of the "cubicle" workplace, both at hip new companies and more established ones like Intel. Collaboration is particularly crucial to the design process, which involves constant iteration on a theme until you've arrived at its most ideal form (no single person can be credited with "inventing" the iPhone).

Technologies -- particularly the cloud, social media, and mobile -- are facilitating an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration in business. Ideas can be shared and improved upon in real-time, and the silos that previously separated functions such as IT, sales, marketing and management are disappearing. However, simply giving people iPads and Chatter doesn't make your business environment collaborative. Mindsets must be adjusted and processes streamlined. Otherwise you risk crossing that fine line that separates collaboration and chaos.

Here are a few tips on how to configure your people, processes and technology to establish a social, collaborative work environment that facilitates innovation.

On the "processes and technology" side:

•  Define Your Processes. Creative energy, just like any other form of energy, has to be channeled through a mechanism before it can be put to good use. Create platforms that track progress and show information sharing to provide leadership with an eagle's eye view and an opportunity to guide progress. But don't think that the "processes" need to be clinical -- creative energy can be captured from collaborative teams in many ways. Consider, for example, Citrix' design collaboration space, which facilitates collaboration by making idea-sharing and transparency a part of the physical design of the building, and in many respects mirrors the interactive nature of a kindergarten classroom.

•  Form a Governance Board. Have a team that owns innovation, serving as a sounding board and developing a pipeline of iterations to systems and processes designed to facilitate a consistent stream of improvements. As we're entering a post-silo world, make your board representative of the entire company, not just one or two departments. If "governance board" sounds too boring for your company culture, call it the "Innovation Squad."

•  Invest in speed and connectivity. People's patience for slow connections is extremely thin these days, and poor service can seriously hamper your efforts. This may sound obvious, but don't take for granted that you'll achieve a collaborative environment if you've got internet issues.

•  Get help. One of the benefits of cloud technology is that it can be turned on and off like a spigot. If a new technology isn't working for your team, you can get rid of it just as easily as you implemented it. However, this often means employing specialized skills that you don't necessarily need 365 days a year. For this reason, companies may benefit from an elastic pool of contractors with specific expertise in collaborative technologies that you can call on as-needed.

On the "people" side:

•  Establish A Vision. Decide from the outset what you want your company to be to the customer, and constantly reiterate this message through every channel. Think about Steve Jobs' vision of delivering advanced computing technology in an ergonomically-designed package. The specifics may have continually changed with the latest technology developments, but the vision guided the culture for 35 years.

•  Lead from the top. Get your CEO onboard. If the leadership isn't fully invested in a collaborative vision, you won't have a collaborative company. On the other hand, a leader who participates in the conversation on a regular basis sets the tone for the rest of the company.

•  Establish an environment of trust. Your teams won't collaborate in any meaningful way if you don't operate an environment of trust. Of course this means that you have to behave in a trustworthy manner, but it also means that you have to trust your people. In the Gartner report "Agile Project Leadership: What it is; How it Develops" Robert Handler and Donna Fitzgerald assert that the trend toward risk aversion within organizations creates a "mindset [that] effectively eliminates creativity and innovation." Beware of overly rigid procedural structures that keep their staff on the safe road, because collaboration and innovation require freedom and risk-taking.

•  Embrace change. It's easier said than done because change is antithetical to bureaucracy, which is the framework of most mid-to-enterprise-level companies. Think about how companies are still arguing over the wisdom of allowing employees to use social media or personal devices at work. This kind of mentality needs to remain in the 20th century, because the kind of people who collaborate for innovation won't want to stay with a company whose policies are suited for another era. Rather than resisting progress, find out how people are communicating, and harness it to the benefit of your company. Today people want to use iPads -- who knows what it'll be tomorrow? Go with the flow.

Michael Kirven is co-founder of agile business consulting firm Bluewolf, which provides lifecycle innovation, cloud implementations, IT staffing, managed services and other services to sync business and IT for efficient, adaptive performance. He also co-authored the book "Iterate or Die" along with Bluewolf co-founder Eric Berridge.

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