The True Driver of Innovation: Is It The Environment Or The People?

True Driver of Innovation: Is It The Environment Or The People?

Over at Forbes Stephannie Denning asks whether it’s people or environment that drive innovation. It’s both. But if you don’t have the people, start with the environment.

Innovation is a network

Let’s start from the end and work to the beginning. New ideas don’t become surprising and radically useful on their own, rather they’re impactful because they’re a combination of many other components that are stronger together. From this perspective, you can look at innovation as a network.

Truly creative ideas are a combination of old and new, common and uncommon. And because you’re connecting the unconnected, you are bringing together disparate components that together form a new network. For example, a new business model, which usually leads to disruption, is a new network.

As a leader, you want to create an environment in your organization where new networks are created that constantly deliver insights that lead to new ideas.

Think like an architect

Oftentimes innovation happens in spite of the environment not being adequate, pitting innovators against a gauntlet of obstacles. This is when people challenge the status quo and find ways to make things happen without support and resources; this is the norm is most places and has been my own experience.

Leaders can avoid this common scenario by eliminating the impediments and creating the conditions for ideas to be born, breathe, grow and mature; they have to create the environment where creativity works at work. Any organization can do this, because they’re less likely to look for Generalists; the people part. As I’ve explained before, Generalists have a hard timing fitting into environments where they’re not understood and welcome; and companies don’t know what to do with them

With that said, there are two key ingredients necessary to accelerate innovation in any environment: engagement and exploration.

Engagement is a measure of how often people in a group communicate with each other, sharing social knowledge. Exploration is a measure of seeking out new ideas and new people. This applies to city planning, where you want design for flow of ideas by getting random people to collide against each other, as much as it does to organizational planning.

Similarly, leaders have to create the context for great ideas to happen.

The glue that makes all of this happen is trust. Leaders that want to create an environment that breeds innovation need to create trust between employees, because creative collaboration is impossible without trust.

What does this mean? Environment shapes behavior. And an environment where people feel free to express themselves, in voice and action, without fear of being penalized for doing so is key. That’s it. This is how you can start to shape an environment that drives innovation.

Do this, and the right people will want to join your organization.