[Editor’s Note: Ideas Lab Contributor Henry Doss conducted the following interview with internationally recognized innovation consultant Alistair Brett as a part of our special series on Innovation.]
As organizations seek to grow and encourage innovation, they often go first to commonly used tools and techniques. This in turn fosters the notion that “something is being done,” because you can point to, well, something being done. But deploying innovation tools into an organization that is either not ready, or whose existing culture inclines it to be predisposed to fail at innovation is a strategic error of some consequence. And the error is driven by a view of innovation that is linear and too strongly focused on the notion of cause and effect.
In fact, a better place to focus an organization’s attention is on the science and dynamics of “connections.” Organizational connections, in a very fundamental sense, are what power innovation, and without proper attention to this area, innovation tools and techniques stand a very good chance of being little more than window dressing.
My friend and colleague Alistair Brett has written much about “links,” “networks” and the theory of how organizations connect. Alistair has spent over 25 years consulting around the world in the area of technology commercialization, working in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Croatia, Russia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Costa Rica. He took his Ph.D. in physics (“something,” he says, “around photons banging into the electron”) and brings the same analytical approach to organizational dynamics that he does to science. He has been thinking about network “links” and how they can drive organizational innovation.
I caught up with Alistair recently for a conversation about links, connections, and innovation.
HENRY: I’ve been reading a lot of your work addressing networks and links. Why is this important for innovation?
ALISTAIR: I think you can go just a bit beyond the theoretical and land in the practical world like this: Links are the antidote to innovation echo chambers. Said a little differently, links – between people and various operational units – cause conversation. And when those links are between different areas of an organization and between different disciplines, people are, obviously, talking to someone other than themselves.
HENRY: What do you mean by “innovation echo chamber”?
ALISTAIR: One of the most obvious and most simple things I’ve come across over the years is just this: People tend to talk to themselves, or to people who already share their same ideas. You see this everywhere, as just a standard feature of the landscape. It’s ubiquitous. And when people are just talking to themselves, the odds of anything innovative happening are very, very small. Engineers talk to engineers; teachers talk to other teachers; policy makers talk to other policy makers. The result is both obvious and predictable. The status quo is continuously reinforced, while innovative, disruptive ideas are hardly noticed, much less championed.
HENRY: And links – that is connections and networks – ameliorate this “echo chamber.”
ALISTAIR: Yes, they will. Or, rather, they can.
HENRY: What’s the difference between “will” and “can” when you talk about the effectiveness of links?
ALISTAIR: Whether links will or will not foster innovation depends on the strength of the connection and what the links connect. For all the theory behind this distinction, it, too, can be thought of in pretty simple terms. The more organizational links or connections there are between divergent points of view, the more likely those links are to cause innovation and disruption. That is, links between teacher and teacher, or engineer and engineer can and do exist. But they tend to reinforce the echo chamber, rather than diminish its influence. Links need to be created between, and operated between, differences, not similarities.
HENRY: So, you see a direct correlation between something we might call “effective diversity” and simple “diversity.”
ALISTAIR: Absolutely. And this is a critical issue for innovation. Unless diverse populations are highly interactive and engaged, nothing will happen. But when you establish links between diverse elements of your organization, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that magic — innovation magic, that is — can happen.
HENRY: Isn’t there a possibility of actually hurting an organization’s efficiency when you have all the “noise” of diverse and possibly unfocused conversations and interactions going on? Links stabilize network connections… and lead to productive exchange.
ALISTAIR: Maybe. Maybe not. You may find the “noise of diversity” affecting your efficiency somewhat, while dramatically improving your effectiveness.
But studies have shown that links – strong and weak – tend to stabilize organizations, even in the act of creating disruptive thinking.
You can think of links like shock absorbers on cars; they smooth out the potholes and bumps an organization encounters. We call this “resistance to external perturbations.” If you want a fancy phrase.
HENRY: Thanks. I like a fancy phrase now and again, and I’ll drop that one into a conversation sometime. But you just distinguished “weak” and “strong” links. Is that intentional?
ALISTAIR: Yes. Mark Granovetter noted way back in the 1960’s, and again in a follow up study in the 1980s, the power of “weak links.” In essence, he found that weak links were in some ways more powerful – as far as innovation is concerned – than strong links. His study found that job seekers were more likely to find “friends of friends” to be of significant help than were close friends. Likewise, in innovation and diversity, we find that new ideas are much more likely to occur when we talk and interact with people and areas of thinking we are less familiar with — friends of friends rather than close friends. This is the opposite of the “echo chamber” – the result of only talking with people we know well, and whose ideas are already familiar to us.
HENRY: This seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Can you give an example of the “power of weak links”?
ALISTAIR: Sure. InnoCentive is an online marketplace aimed at connecting freelance problem-solvers with organizations facing technical problems. They have done regression studies of their results that show something very powerful: The further the problem-solvers are from the field of expertise that has the problem, the more likely they are to solve the problem. This is a very important and critical observation about innovation. I don’t think this point can be over-emphasized.
HENRY: So, this kind of ties together links, networks, diversity and disruption all into one framework, doesn’t it?
ALISTAIR: Pretty much. If you are seeking innovation/disruption in an organization, you need to look very carefully at how information flows between various networks and areas of expertise.
Is there a good interchange and mix of ideas? Does information flow effectively and quickly? Is there a strong, varied mix of network links throughout the organization?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” you are likely to find innovation. If the answer is no, you are likely to find just a lot of activity and little innovation.
Henry Doss is Chief Strategy Officer of T2 Venture Creation, which is sponsoring the Global Innovation Summit taking place this week in Silicon Valley. This is the fourth piece in an Ideas Lab special series about Innovation coming from the Summit.