When we talk about innovation, we often focus on individuals. Take the endless fascination with Steve Jobs as an innovative leader, or our innate tendency to attribute a discovery to a single inventor. In business, we generally identify good innovators and nurture their ability to generate creative practical solutions to new problems. There is less focus on the kinds of structures that promote a culture of innovation.
At the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas, we have been exploring the ecosystem of innovation using the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) as a model. While traditional incubators focus on providing inexpensive space and business advice for new companies, ATI, under director Isaac Barchas, helps early-stage technology companies to get their first round of funding.
The program functions a lot like a coral reef for start-ups. In the ocean, a reef provides a structure that protects fish, provides food, and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive. Likewise, ATI brings together new companies, experienced business leaders, faculty researchers, government officials, established technology companies, and investors. This environment provides those new companies with a wealth of technical expertise, business experience, and access to capital that supports innovation in the early stages of growth.
Many large organizations innovate in a different way. They often have internal experts on idea generation or external consultants who work with groups to generate ideas. At that point, existing business units within the company take on the task of pushing a new idea forward until it can be brought to market.
If your organization relies heavily on individual innovation, consider creating your own innovation reef, where creative problem-solving experts develop a network of individuals skilled in bringing new ideas to market. There are three essential elements to creating this in your company:
Get the right people involved. The innovation network has to include upper-level management that can fund projects, leaders who have had success with past innovations, technical experts, and external consultants.
Cultivate the network. This extended group should have opportunities to mix together in productive ways. Hold regular meetings, events, and talks where innovators from across an organization can get together and share their experience. Lead innovators need to meet regularly with a variety of groups within a company that are working on innovative projects to help connect together groups that are undergoing similar problems.
Educate others. In order for best innovation practices to diffuse through an organization, it is important to develop those ideas before projects begin. The innovation network should implement a company-wide education program on how to develop good ideas and how to transform good ideas into actionable plans to bring those ideas to market. These lessons should be delivered both to the future leaders within the company (which many companies do well) as well as broadly to the rank-and-file who will ultimately play a significant role in innovation success (which fewer companies do well).
A core aim of an innovation reef is that the innovation network within a company is responsible for creating a structure that promotes innovation, but need not govern the innovation outcomes. The positive element of creating a broad innovation ecosystem is that groups involved in innovative projects will reach out to each other directly to solve problems rather than requiring a central office to mediate all communications. This loosely-coupled structure helps to create a culture of innovation, rather than top-down governance, allowing innovative ideas to not only be formed — but also thrive and grow.
Bloomberg moderates all comments. Comments that are abusive or off-topic will not be posted to the site. Excessively long comments may be moderated as well. Bloomberg cannot facilitate requests to remove comments or explain individual moderation decisions.