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Innovation as a Social Phenomenon

Every company is a society with its own unique history, culture, and organization. This is often seen as a barrier to innovation, but at Point Forward, we understand that a company's social matrix and organizational knowledge can be brought into play as a powerful resource for innovation. We believe that understanding and managing an organization's dynamics and roles is crucial both to the quality of individual product solutions that result, as well as it is to the overall innovative robustness of the company as a whole.

We offer five keys for implementing sustained collaboration which we have learned by working with companies in industries as diverse as automotive, healthcare, and food service.

1. Embedded Vision

Vision, a simple, clear, inspiring image of a new and better future, is more often claimed than truly achieved. It is a what, not a how—and should not be confused with strategy. Vision creation seems mysterious. By and large, we expect it to spring full-blown from visionary individuals. But we have seen how, by drawing on the socially-embedded collective wisdom of the company in sustained collaboration, true vision can be deliberately created. It involves a lot of conversation and hard conceptual work. The vision must be directly and powerfully linked to the company’s values.

A good vision touches company employees deeply and personally. It taps emotions and energy that will power good ideas and productive collaboration. The simplicity, generality and power of the vision give it flexibility to inspire unexpected new ideas. An effective vision statement is bold and simple, leaving room for listeners and collaborators emotionally and practically “fill in” for themselves how to bring it about. In 1960, JFK uttered one of the most powerful vision statements we know: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  Companies should develop visions not only for their organization, but also for major initiatives such as new brands, or new product or service lines or platforms. Too often, companies jump to products and ideas without socializing the foundational insights and direction of a vision.

2. Seed Ideas

Sustained collaboration for specific initiatives starts with seed ideas—inspired, surprising, original notions addressing new opportunities—that are yet incomplete. Seed ideas invite participation, not like the concepts that result from brainstorming, which are usually so concrete they seem almost finished and elicit a binary, like-dislike reaction. The potential of a good seed idea draws the attention and catalyzes imaginative development activity. Clear connection to the vision gives it power. Its incompleteness gives others, in addition to the originators, space to contribute. Any successful innovation undergoes this process of development and completion.

Companies that recognize that the social and collaborative development of seed ideas is a natural and significant source of an innovation’s realized value, tap more of their internal potential and end up producing many more creative new ideas. Seed ideas can take many forms: experience scenarios, narratives or videos (where consumer needs and how to address them are implicit); concept cars (purposefully futuristic or exaggerated to communicate a point of view and engage); concept components (that can be assembled in to a range of different master concepts); paper prototypes (low fidelity material expressions intended for basic learning)… [Spencer Silver’s accidental invention of a “low tack” adhesive was a seed idea—but 3M needed “builds” on the seed idea by Art Fry who wanted a bookmark, and Geoff Nicholson who thought the original marketing effort could be improved.]

3. Publishing to the Organization

If a company is committed to the principle that sustained collaboration, not a front-end spark of brilliance, is the real source of innovation value, and that seed ideas are catalysts, not fully formed solutions, then it can be confident using internal openness as an innovation accelerator. The organization will seek out feedback and build on seed ideas, instead of trying to protect concepts from being shot down. The mindset becomes “it’s never too early to communicate.” By communicating to the whole organization, in a semi-polished form, embedded vision, seed ideas, and a lot of other source material for creative inspiration (scenarios, insights, analogies, metaphors, Q&A, etc.) a larger gene pool of creativity is activated, with a higher level of emotional connection. Publishing activities should be multi-model. In addition to traditional text and graphics, publishing can also be done through participatory engagements, exercises that allow people to actively play with the content. For example, “mud slinging” where participants are encouraged to get out all their objections. Or improv skits that simulate a new experience. Or co-created roadmaps that realize vision in stages.

The publishing should be continuous and sustained, taking advantage of the natural communication forms and forums in the company, whether it be meetings, email, social media or something else. This communication will have more impact on the organization if it emerges naturally, presented by others, not just the authors.

4. Long-Term Natural Iteration

Sustained collaboration presumes iteration—a cycle of learning through successive constructions in order to fully realize the possibilities of an idea. But innovation as a social process does not fit neatly into the confines of a short-term project structure. The best ideas result from the freedom to iterate over and over, accumulating participants’ collective insights in a natural way. A company committed to sustained collaboration must be prepared for the course of development to take three years, five years, maybe a decade. (Though some of the iteration can be conducted in the market, not just the lab.) The results will be different than initially imagined and that’s good. Patience is important. Slow and great is better than fast and never.

The latent possibilities of any seed idea, and the nature of consumer needs it’s designed to address, are too complicated for one designer, or even a group of product developers, to fully understand. In fact, it’s complicated enough that a series of prototype revisions is actually necessary. The frequent practice of iteration demonstrates respect for the depth of learning required, and for the abundance of opportunities to innovate. Iterative development helps access all the resources of understanding and creativity of the company.

5. Transformational Leadership

Pushing for innovation usually takes place in a competitive, zero-sum idea space inside the company, even before getting a chance in the market. Some stakeholders, for various reasons unrelated to the content, will be against even the greatest ideas. A struggle with competing ideas must be carried forward on a daily basis through a combination of strong advocacy and creative compromise. Sustaining an innovation campaign usually comes down to one or two leaders. Their efforts are much like those of a political campaign—building a base, finding and cementing coalitions, assuaging adversaries, taking polls, making stump speeches and staying on message.

The process is one of using and accumulating power. The transformational leader is always acting at the edge of what’s acceptable (with regard to both ideas and methods). It takes a certain kind of person who knows they will meet resistance and will have to take large risks—and does it anyway. The transformational leader understands that sustained collaboration is a reliable way to create great products and services, and because of that, a source of power. If you cannot be that transformational leader, that’s okay, but you need to find one. That person is as important as the innovation itself.