December 8, 2008

Innovation is a Team Sport

A recent New York Times article touted the benefits of collaborating to innovate. Debunking the myth of the lone genius who creates in solitude, the article suggests that the best innovation comes about through collaboration -- where many people and perspectives intersect to create and refine ideas. However, it isn't enough just to put a group of people in a room and ask them to brainstorm. In fact, according to the article, brainstorming is not nearly as productive as we'd like to believe. Instead of asking folks to "solve a problem" or "devise a new strategy" (favorite brainstorming topics), the better path is "systematic inventive thinking" in which the participants are asked to identify products and processes that work, break those down into their components, and then think about how those components can be put to other productive uses.

When I read this description of systematic inventive thinking, I realized that it appeared to share some of the principles of appreciative inquiry, which encourages us to build on our strengths. What a difference from the traditional approach of focusing on what does not work! (In a prior post I talked about the benefits of asking What Went Right rather than What Went Wrong?) Further, when you ask a group to focus on what's good, you stand a better chance of avoiding some of the negative dynamics that emerge in problem-solving sessions such as refusing to speak up out of fear of failure or a desire to hoard ideas.

Whether you attempt innovation in solitary confinement or through a group process, research has shown that innovation isn't a flash in the pan. According to Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:
Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company .... Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.
So what would it take to build innovation into the culture of your company? Sawyer believes that even the lone genius is part of a wider web of ideas and people -- the people the genius talks to, the people who write the things the genius reads, etc. This suggests that a company that wants a robust innovation culture has to build robust social networks that facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas.

How can knowledge management help? KM knows all about social networks and social media tools. KM knows how to reduce information silos and enable information sharing. KM knows how to foster collaboration. We've often said that the whole point of knowledge management is innovation. With this focus on group genius, it's becoming clearer how the things that knowledge management does well can be deployed to build a vibrant culture of innovation within every company.

[Thanks to Kevin O'Keefe at LexBlog for pointing out this article.]

4 comments:

Samuel Driessen said...

Nice post, Mary! Thanks for the pointer to 'appreciative inquiry'. Typically something I knew was right, but didn't have a name for me yet. Your post relates well to Berkun's book, 'The Myth of Innovation'. Really nice read.
I agree with you that KM is all about innovation. My experience is that KM-minded people are much more open to other's ideas, wishes and beliefs. Let's build on each other, instead of break each other and the company down.

Gastón Bilder, International Legal Counsel - Community Relationships said...

I liked the mention in the NY article about brainstorming being over emphasized. Creating the right environment for innovation also involves stimulating, i.e. rewarding innovators.

Mary Abraham said...

Samuel -

Thanks for your feedback and thanks for letting me know about Berkun's book. It sounds like something I definitely need to read.

- Mary

Mary Abraham said...

Gaston -

Rewarding innovators is a tried and true approach. I'd be curious to know how best to identify and reward innovators in the world of lawyers, law departments and law firms. Have you seen any successful examples?

- Mary