A week or so ago, GovLoop started a discussion on what a government innovation lab would look like. Some great comments on how to build collaborative workspaces but I felt that the discussion missed the greater point of how to make government agencies more innovative. The major problem with innovation labs is that they may be good for short-term creativity but they interfere with long-term innovation as Sawyer (2007) observes. “An isolated ‘skunk works’ [innovation lab] usually has trouble communicating with the rest of the organization because innovation requires collaboration across the company” (127).
In Sawyer’s book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (2007), he advocates ten secrets for making the entire organization creative through collaboration.
1. Keep Many Irons in the Fire (p. 128) – have a number of small projects going at once so that when the circumstances are right, the organization can capitalize on the small project. For example, animators at Pixar are constantly creating small films that either becomes the basis for a larger film or a new animation technique that could be used later.
2. Create a Department of Surprise (p. 129) – Keep mining your past failed ideas. Something that didn’t work in one department can be the perfect solution in another department. Openly share all ideas across silos.
3. Build Spaces for Creative Conversation (p. 131) – Some of the best ideas come from chance conversations. The architectural ideas suggested in GovLoop’s discussion should be applied throughout the organization.
4. Allow Time for Ideas to Merge (p. 132) – Give people and ideas time to incubate and grow.
5. Manage the Risks of Improvisation (p. 133) – There are three risks to innovation that must be managed: too much time innovating and not enough time spent on planned work; creativity can make it impossible to sustain a vision and strategy; and too many ideas causing organizational attention deficit disorder.
6. Improvise at the Edge of Chaos (p. 134) – There has to be a good mix of structure and innovation for the optimum of creativity. The key is to find the “edge of chaos” where the most successful innovations can thrive.
7. Manager Knowledge for Innovation (p. 136) – The most creative organizations are great at spreading processes for innovation from one department to another.
8. Build Dense Networks (p. 137) – Innovative organizations share knowledge and decision making throughout the organization. Employees can easily access the total knowledge of the organization to help them learn about creative solutions developed in other parts of the organization.
9. Ditch the Organizational Chart (p. 138) – Or at least make it easier for employees to collaborate across the organizational lines.
10. Measure the Right Things (p. 140) – Sawyer suggests measures such as the time employees spend on personal projects, analyzing social networks to determine if collaboration is occurring across departments, or measures for how much knowledge is being created.
The end result of these ten secrets is the creation of collaborative webs such as the network of inventors and pioneers who helped create the early airplane industry or made Silicon Valley so successful. You are probably viewing this blog posting on one of the most successful collaborative web in history – the Internet.
The final issue with the closed-off innovation lab is that it prevents government agencies from the most fruitful collaborations – engaging the agency’s stakeholders. In Chapter Ten – Collaborating with Customers, Sawyer (2007) found that the most innovation occurs when companies and their customers work together. He gives the examples of Lego’s Mindstorms, Amazon’s Shops, Microsoft’s Kinect, and Google Map applications among others. Several government agencies are finding the same results as they post challenges and offer prizes for building health apps or building the one-hundred year spacecraft.
Innovation thrives in an open and collaborative environment where all employees and stakeholders have an opportunity to suggest ideas, build on the ideas of others, and spread creative processes throughout the organizations. Each agency should build a creative web that connects to the other creative webs spanning the government. Make every employee’s office a networked innovation lab.
Sawyer, K. (2007). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Basic Books.
Disclaimer: All opinions are mine and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations I belong to and should not be construed as such.