Talking about innovation

Yesterday I had the great privilege to be able to speak about the concept of innovation with the board of a major multinational company. Having spent the past few months exploring themes of collaboration with many different organisations about collaboration as part of my #sharingorg project, I’ve picked up many stories about how innovative things are happening in many different fields. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that collaboration across organisational divides is a core foundation for innovative thinking.

But what the heck is innovation?

It often gets confused with invention – the “eureka!” moments of inspiration that our culture weaves into creation myths from Archimedes to Alexander Graham Bell to Steve Jobs. But such step changes at deeper analysis are usually a series of incremental steps retold more heroically in hindsight (see Walter Issacson’s Innovators for more on that).

It also today also gets confused with disruption – a form of innovation no doubt, but such industry-changing moments also are the exception rather than rule.

Innovation is a continuum of doing things differently – from marginal gain tweaks through to sea change disruptions. And being able to understand how an organisation is already innovating is a useful lever to help more to happen.

Because in conversations last night, at a starting point where the people I was with seemed to have a view that their organisation wasn’t particularly innovative, stories started to emerge of all sorts of things that were going on that were wonderful examples. What did seem to be missing was a self-belief that the organisation could do it, and mechanisms within that would allow those stories to be told and retold across the company to help reinforce a more innovative outlook.

There are big cultural issues here, particularly within a global company. Having worked in an American corporation I know how the “big I am” approach that could be taken by my US colleagues could grate to my reserved British ears. Telling stories globally without it appearing as nauseating showboating is a real challenge.

But finding mechanisms, both behaviourally and technically, to allow stories of change and outcomes to distribute and thrive across a company seems increasingly to me to be a keystone of an organisation being able to increase its innovative capability. It’s an issue of internal communications, and probably one too strategic to be merely left in the hands of Internal Communications.

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