Innovation: why encouraging making friends at work makes good business sense

Take Away Line

Innovation is as much a social process as something a genius does on their own.  Simply put, innovation comes better when ideas hit against one another in an informal way.  The key thing is breaking down barriers between groups within an organisation so the light can get in.  While you can’t command informal relationship to stimulate innovation, leaders can nudge the process along.

Innovation and ‘The Ping Factor’

One of the things I miss about not being an employee of an organisation and seeing my work colleagues every day is the ‘ping factor’.  You know, when, for example, you’re working with colleagues on a project and the spark flies between you and then, suddenly – ping! – you have an idea, that grabs the problem and takes things forward.  Was it your idea or were you the voice of the group process?

It’s a pretty well established notion that the royal road to organisational success and sustainability passes by innovation.  By developing new, useful knowledge, by creating new ways to deal with old problems and by developing new solutions to meet client needs better, organisations stay ahead.  So, the only problem then is to foster a spirit of creativity.

Innovation – not only about smart individuals

The traditional approach has been to foster creative talent along with processes such as ideas banks and various other ways of engineering originality.  But this presupposes that innovation is all about the smart individual and his or her light bulb moments.  As long as they have the right resources, your bright people will turn the right lights on.  Recent research, as outlined in Alexander Fliaster’s article in People Management (4/11) challenges this assumption. It may be part of the picture, but it’s way short of enough.

It’s increasingly clear that innovation is a much a social process as an individual one.  The myths around great innovators such as Thomas Edison turn out to be exaggerated: like many great innovators, he had a great team of supporters behind him.

Informality and innovation

Social networks, informal interactions, chatting by the water cooler and all the other ways in which work colleagues interact informally, are, the research  shows, one of the best ways for knowledge and work practices to be shared, and for new ideas to be developed.  If you make friends at work, it helps the business!

For those engaged in social action this may come as no surprise.  Want to solve a pressing social problem or campaign for a new policy?  Get a bunch of people together, who know and trust each other, to share ideas and develop a way forward.  But many business and service organisations seem to have forgotten this old village truism.  And research is leading them back to it.

So, the way forward is clear:  facilitate informal social networks amongst work colleagues and innovation follows.  Right?

Locating barriers to informality

Yes, but a little more specifically, it’s important to give attention to what one commentator calls ‘structural holes’.  Structural holes are the weak links in relationship bonds between teams, between divisions, departments, territories, etc.  They block the flow of ideas and knowledge and the ability to put one idea/approach/practice/fact against another and come up with new approaches that neither party would ever likely have thought of.  It is in these half-lit spaces that the potential for real innovation comes.

If you can’t command informal networks, you can at least encourage them

The trouble is you can’t command social networks; you can’t legislate for informality; and you can’t make people get on if they just don’t want to. But when informal relationships of this nature do develop, people begin to call each other for advice and when they do they tend to get a quick and useful response, in contrast to the traditional managerial email which can often in practice be overlooked.  Not only that, but people who consider themselves friends are more likely also to challenge one another than people who only have an informal relationship.  It’s in the challenge, the banter, the rapid fire retorts that understandings are beaten into shape that ideas are forged and that solutions are shaped and polished.  Innovation is fostered by the ‘craic’!

So, to encourage a culture of creativity and innovation, you not only have to invest in individual talent, to support the innovators, but you also have to invest in informality, to encourage a culture of relationship building particularly between some of the teams that often don’t get to know each other easily.  As the song lyric had it: ‘there’s a crack, there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’ (‘Anthem‘ by L Cohen).  Such a culture cannot be commanded, but it can be supported.

Debating Points

  1. What’s your organisation’s approach to fostering a culture of innovation?
  2. Do you have any stories of how informal connections within your organisation have helped look at old problems in new ways?
  3. Where are the dark spaces between teams that may block the development of informal relationship building in your organisation?

About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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One Response to Innovation: why encouraging making friends at work makes good business sense

  1. A recent survey by People Management Magazine supports these ideas. According to the survey, employees have the best ideas in the pub:

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