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Innovation Networks: Connect Your Way to a Better Idea

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In Executive Education at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, we’ve noticed a heightened interest in custom programs on the topic of “innovation.” I use quotations for a reason: the deeper I delve into what our clients seek to resolve, the more I find that they are grappling with issues around risk taking, collaboration, or faster decision making–not the stereotypical Eureka!/light bulb image conjured by the term.

One client summed it up nicely. He commented that their firm was struggling with becoming more innovative, and as a result he was trying to determine how to fit innovation into his daily routine. For example: “I will be innovative between 11 and 12 today.” We both chuckled, but it really exemplifies that the term “innovation” is misleading. It causes people to feel they are supposed to envision the next iPad – what a daunting concept!

Is Innovation the result of the prophetic reflections of lone, introverted, self-centered, creative geniuses, or instead the fruit of collaboration of a group of talented contributors working together to shape a collective shared vision?

– Fabio Sergio “The Myth of the Brand New Innovation Myth”

I read a great article recently by Fabio Sergio called “The Myth of the Brand New Innovation Myth” where he asks the question “Is Innovation the result of the prophetic reflections of lone, introverted, self-centered, creative geniuses, or instead the fruit of collaboration of a group of talented contributors working together to shape a collective shared vision?  The answer is yes to both. There are times when creative collaboration leads to new ideas that are strengthened when an individual internalizes and synthesizes the ideas. The individual then contributes their individual ideas to the whole for a round of collaborative evolution.

I have the pleasure of working with Professor Andrew Hargadon, the founder of the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Energy Efficiency Center. He’s an engineer and social scientist, as well as the author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. In that book, he contends that innovations do not result from flashes of brilliance by lone inventors or organizations. In fact, innovation is really about creatively recombining ideas, people, and objects from past technologies in ways that spark new technological revolutions.

He previously worked at Apple and IDEO, and we’ve had some interesting conversations about the IDEO ideation process, which is highly collaborative in nature. He explains that when a group of individuals have worked together at the same company for many years and come together to ideate something new, it’s very difficult because their frame of reference and shared experiences are so similar that the ideas generated are not really that “innovative.”

So when companies talk about “innovation,” what are they really seeking? Are they seeking that big breakthrough idea that is going to transform their customers’ lives and their industry? I’ve come to understand that managers want employees to lift their eyes up and out, to think differently about the work they do, to develop new ideas on how to be more customer-focused, more productive, and create more value – a much less daunting and more achievable task.

Dr. Hargadon’s work also focuses on the power of building networks to foster innovation – idea networks and action networks.

Broad-ranging networks allow access to lots of ideas to choose from. No single idea will likely be fruitful but with enough ideas, one will.  When it’s time to bring the idea to life, it’s necessary to switch over to action networks. Discussions happen about ideas, goals, timing, roles, and about what needs to happen next–leases are signed, credit cards are maxed out, jobs are quit, and doors are opened to launch the new idea.

- Professor Andrew Hargadon

The lesson is that to become more innovative, sometimes you need to be collaborative, and sometimes you need to work alone. Furthermore, you need to tap into what people in other departments in your organization and people in other industries are doing in order to learn from them. You’ll be able to adapt their ideas into something that will make a difference for you, your customer, and your organization.

So if it’s 11:00 a.m. and time to become more innovative, I recommend that you take the time to call someone in your network you haven’t connected with in awhile, and find out what they’re working on. Think about what you learned, discuss it with your co-workers and see what new ideas emerge.

At UC Davis Graduate School of Management Executive Education we think the critical question around the development of any new program is, “What will success look like and how will we measure it.”  If you or your company is wrestling with how to become more innovative, contact us, and we’ll peel back the onion to determine where best to go with that challenge.

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