5 Steps to Lead Innovation


Innovation. Every organization wants to be innovative. We all want to introduce the next big idea to make a significant contribution to our organizations. But what does that really look like and how do you bring about innovation? Where does the process start? In his book Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Developing Enterprise Leaders, Jackson Nickerson, PhD, Associate Dean at Brookings Executive Education, and professor at Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis outlines five practices to lead the innovation process in our organizations.

The major barriers to innovation today result not from failure of individual genius, but rather the inability to exploit existing capabilities of an agency in new and revolutionary ways. The three most common obstacles to innovation are fragmentation (the breakdown of collaboration), domination (the voice of a few drown out others) and insularity (operating in a silo). The following 5 steps will help you avoid common obstacles:

  1. Create a Network-Centric Ability to Sense and Respond to New Opportunities

Effective leaders need to be aware of how skills and abilities are distributed and tapped within the networks that make up their organizations. Building awareness of who knows what in the network is critical to enable you to tap the right expertise at the right time. You should design meetings/team building events to ensure that bridges are built across silos versus staff simply reconnecting with people they already know. Everything from how tables are staffed and then rotated, to the kinds of problem solving sessions people participate in can be used to reinforce connectivity

  1. Develop an Ability to Rapidly Test and Refine an Opportunity and Avoid Gridlock

Effective innovation is about action as much as vision. In order to create a network that can rapidly combine and deploy resources to test the potential of many different opportunities you have to avoid gridlock. In order to do this map out decision making networks to quickly reveal where certain decision rights need to be defined or relocated to permit more rapid prototyping of ideas.

  1. Magnify Returns on Human Capital by Working Through Those in Specific Network Positions

Identify key brokers (those who hold the entire network together by virtue of their relationships) across subgroups and formal structures. Brokers are often the most aware of expertise and resources inside and outside of an organization that can be leveraged. Tapping people by virtue of their position in the network increases the likelihood of success by engaging those with the best expertise and greatest influence in the network.

  1. Leverage “Energy” in a Network as a Key Determinant of Innovation and Progress

Emotion plays a substantial role in determining who people learn from. Particularly in creative interactions where someone is on new ground and not just looking for answers to known problems. Map energy or enthusiasm in networks – simply by asking people to indicate those individuals with whom they leave interactions enthused versus those who are draining to identify potential breakdown areas.

  1. Ensure That Organizational Context Helps Innovation Occur Fluidly throughout a Network

Too heavy a focus on individual achievement or competition between departments creates silos in networks that undermine innovation opportunities. Remember, effective collaboration requires a holistic approach.

Leaders who can read and harness the networks in and beyond their organizations, quickly diagnose breakdowns in those networks before they become crises, and effectively build new networks around emerging innovations will be the most successful.

Kimberly Hall is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Brenda Dennis

Your last point is golden! I never really gave much thought to how the competition between units can create the silos. It’s so important to stop that tendency to withhold information from other units, or compete for acknowledgement. Great article, thanks!