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Front End of Innovation 2013 Recap: Harness the Power of the Collective

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(Author's Introduction: Two months ago, the FEI conference was replete with on-the-ground advice and information about how to build an innovative company and an innovative world (my twelve posts on those insights).  I offer here an integration of the enduring wisdom provided by academic and business thinkers alike: Harness the power of the collective.)

No One is an Island

As Keith Sawyer pointed out, one of the biggest myths of creativity and innovation is the lone genius.  Even efforts for Jugaad Innovation, which has a minimalist attitude when it comes to resources, are nearly all multi-person endeavors.  While innovation blitzes require personal recognition for each participant, it is important to recognize that these participants have their ideas evaluated and refined through interactions with others and are given the freedom and resources to innovate by a company that is on-board with the innovation efforts.  Likewise, planning for the future requires the joint insights of both innovators and consumers.

Group Genius

There is, however, a difference between multiple people handling an idea before it is fully formed and executed, and a group generating an idea together.  At first blush, they seem to be the same process in different contexts and time frames, with ideas generated in a group being iterated more quickly and all of the diversity of viewpoints coming in at once instead of the process going through several departments.  There is, however, a synergy of group genius that goes beyond the additive effects of diversity and multiple-handling.  In their House of Guilds game, Seek Research showed how groups can harness collective wisdom to solve problems through deep, empathy-based comprehension.  Similarly, the Nexus Sprint events at Philadelphia University showed how synergy and mentorship can turn a team of university students into innovators who are partnering with major companies to solve problems of global import.

Innovative Culture

But, in order to have departments and teams that can work together on innovation, it is imperative to have a culture that fosters creativity and passion.  One way to do this is do create an innovation club, in which people can get together for events like Flux Sessions, but these need to be nurtured and protected by rules of engagement.  Having company-wide policies like Google's famed 20% time is a good thing, but management must, at minimum, be able to step back and allow it.  Optimally, management can jump right in and create a full support structure for an innovative culture (both Colin Nelson and Keith Sawyer gave advice on how to do this).  And, when a company has an innovative culture, it is more likely to have the spontaneous synergy that comes from many interactions between people who are primed for passion and creativity.

Innovative Attitudes

Indeed, passion and creativity are two of the key attributes that need to pervade a company so that it can, as a whole, be innovative.  A third one is grit.  As Angela Duckworth pointed out, successful people and successful companies need to be able to foster and harness zeal, effort, and a willingness to strive in the face of adversity in the long-term.  For any entity, be it a company, a department, or an individual, maintaining all three attributes, and the attitudes they connote, require the joint efforts of a great many people.

One of the primary keys to innovation, however, was voiced by improv consultant Michelle James:

Give someone an offer, and accept his/hers, even if it is disruptive.  Receive whatever is shared with you as a gift, and add something to it.

With this key, grit, passion, creativity, and the foundation to build a synergistic group, almost any company can harness the power of the collective.

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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