Thinking Networks for better innovation


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The “sole inventor working alone” is almost total myth: most new ideas occur in networks of thinkers who are mulling over similar issues. If you want to be creative, be in a network. ~Steven Johnson

 One thing is sure: innovation is not a one-man matter. It takes engagement and ongoing exchange with internal and external actors to ignite creative ideas within any organization. But what is more fascinating is that most breakthrough innovations are recombinations of existing ideas or technologies. If many organizations fail to innovate, the main reason would be either their inability to leverage their internal and external networks in a way that recognizes opportunities or their incapacity to tap into the hidden business value of collaboration in order to recombine expertise and ideas. The first problem is a failure to exploit expertise at an organization’s disposal, the second is an inability to reshape the networks in ways that create value and open new markets.

In their compelling book “Driving results through social networks”, Rob Cross & Robert J. Thomas assert that the major barriers to innovation result not from failures of individual genius but from failures of collaboration. They actually do a great job pinpointing the major obstacles to innovation seen through a network perspective: 

Fragmentation. Collaboration often breaks down across functional lines, technical capabilities, and occupational subcultures in ways that invisibly undermine strategic innovation efforts. What is interesting is that network fragmentation often arises from the organization’s formal structure itself!

Domination.  The voices of a few central network members can drown out novel ideas and drive innovation efforts along traditional trajectories. The constitution of some cliques can form and preclude the integration of important expertise, creating an invisible barrier to innovation and execution that the team was formed to bridge in the first place.

Insularity. The inability to recognize and leverage relevant external expertise can yield excessive cost structures and delays that result in missed market opportunities.

The use of Social Network Analysis is particularly interesting in diagnosing these specific issues. Identifying the white spaces in the formal network renders information about possible fragmentations. Analyzing clusters within the organization’s informal networks can give clues on cliques, on who’s central in the network and who’s isolated. Collaboration patterns’ analysis gives an idea on what supports innovation and what hinders it.

Once the issues spotted, targeted initiatives can ensue. Decision makers can:

       Incorporate brokers (knowledge workers bridging the network’s gaps) into the innovation team in order to channel external information to the team

       Recombine existing expertise and resources to produce innovation breakthroughs 

       Ensure connectivity among those with the right expertise in a given domain and those with the right influence in the organization to help get things done 

       Ensure collaboration between the right roles at relevant points in a project

       Bridge the white spaces by enhancing connectivity across team members

       Decrease the hierarchical information seeking that creates bottlenecks and less efficient decision-making processes

       Encourage ties to relevant parties both inside and outside the organization


Thinking networks when trying to stir innovation can benefit the organization by suggesting targeted initiatives that save time and money. The question that remains is: is relying on networks enough? Boris Pluskowski once said that we exist as a community, but we achieve as a team. Preparing the right conditions for serendipity to take place isn’t guarantor of the occurring of breakthrough innovation. Formal structure is just as necessary. It is therefore critical that leaders ensure the right balance of reliance on formal structure (to ensure consistency and efficiency) and networks (to ensure innovation).


Lamia Ben


Related article:

Thinking Networks for a better alignment



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