Leadership and Innovation: The new role of leader in network contexts

This post was written with some questions in mind: What does it mean to lead an innovation team in a network context? How can one be prepared for innovation management, talent management and performance delivery? After all, does this challenge change when we consider that relations are configured as networks and this configuration might facilitate the emergence of innovation? Is it possible to manage emergent innovation?

The intention here is to outline some ideas on this subject.


Managing a team: Competences or Talent?

Most multinational and big size companies use a competence evaluation matrix derived from the company’s strategy as a means to evaluate their professionals. We’re talking about a very useful and consolidated tool that guides important processes, from recruitment to career assessment. It is meant to guarantee some uniformity in performance evaluation, facilitate internal hiring and career planning.

But these competences might have little (or nothing) to do with how each person sees his or her own talents. Think of it for a moment. How would you tag your own talents? Are your tags similar to those your organization uses to evaluate you?

One usually finds very similar competences in companies that operate in different business contexts and even different countries. They mostly represent the common sense of professional profile with some bits of differentiation according to the specific organization they are applied to.

It is useful, but overall, this tool subjects people to a gap analysis and reinforces an external reference as a basis for assessment. People are permanently “lacking” something; therefore they should seek development to fit the organization’s expectations. This pattern of evaluation might contribute to professional anxiety, something that our society is abundant in.

We might be missing something very important, especially when innovation is concerned.

Now let us focus on talent, a notion deeply linked to abundance (something that our society is lacking). Understanding talent is realizing what overflows and wants to be expressed by each person. It has to do with the uniqueness, the life history, the emotional structure and the mental maps each one creates. It is related to finding one’s singularity, which is usually a slow and lifelong process. Talent is a much more fluid concept than that of competences, more difficult to catch and hold.


Managing Emerging talents

That said, we can distinguish competence management from the management of emerging talents, considering emerging talents as the unique potential that results from the complex combination of occurrences represented by:

  • The diverse roles each person plays and has played in life (from which individual talent results) and
  • The encounters and talent combinations of a specific group (the talents that can emerge in a team).

Emerging talents, when expressed:

  • Might surprise the person and the team
  • Increases the creative energy
  • Enhances the odds that innovation will come out.

It is part of the innovation manager’s role to facilitate the identification and the connection of the team’s talents, having the mission and the vision of the organization as a framework. Is this complex? Yes, but it is also simple. Anyone can learn to tag his or her own talents, although the total number of tags will certainly be much broader than the number of corporate competences.


Innovation Management


The manager is also responsible for innovation management, often using corporate tools, such as stage gates or portfolio management. These features are critical for the organization to distinguish the most valuable projects and to validate them. It is necessary to have clear criteria for the comparison of these projects and to have consolidated tools for decision-making. Nonetheless, these tools may have little (or nothing) to do with the actual pace of innovation, which is based on the connection of internal and external talents and can include leaps and connections that take time to mature. This fundamental nonlinearity of innovation is called slow hunch by Steven Johnson in his very popular video: Where Good Ideas Come From.

So now we can picture the situation of the leader: different tools, rituals and control codes and, at the same time, the challenge of living in a network that is increasingly enhanced by social media, where each person seeks for talent expression, connections and meaningful production. The bottom up component of innovation becomes increasingly important.

The trapped leader


So what “tools” does the leader have to deal with the bottom up characteristics of innovation? How will he or she manage emerging talents? How can innovation projects based on emerging talents be fostered?

We don’t intend to propose that organizations drop all existing tools and start from scratch. This is not a Zero-One question, but a matter of learning to operate in grey scale and to deal with paradoxes. What we cannot avoid is the fact that it is up to this generation of leaders to seriously address the issue of emergence in organizations and to seek for new lines of action in the “micro-contexts” of innovation that the teams represent.

But how?

Here we intend to present a list of useful practices that might inspire new forms of leadership and complement the control tools that dominate life (and the way of perceiving life, which is more serious) in organizations.


8 Ideas for managing emergent innovation


1. Identify and support the emerging talents: what each person says he or she knows is more important for innovation than mapped competences. Based in the mutual recognition of talents some truly original combinations and innovations may arise. Maybe that’s what Google is looking for when it offers 20% free time for people to meet and create new projects.


2. Give visibility to what the team does, give context to what emerges. The leader may be a mirror, a catalyst that allows the team to see its achievements and to put them into context. For those who want to learn more about this, it is worth reading Margaret Wheatley. But visibility is also making it happen! Once an innovative idea is brought to life, a gate is open. The team must pass the gate and execution then becomes the name of the game. Although accidents might lead the team back to problem solving.


3. Creating contexts for good encounters. What do we want when we meet somebody? According to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who interprets Espinosa, good encounters happen when two bodies affect each other in composition, so energy grows. But in organizations, people meet for many different purposes, encounters are not free, but have very specific purposes. Paul Pangaro, in his critics of the excessive faith in design thinking, proposes what he names conversation design: the creation of conversation contexts and dynamics for different purposes. Setting goals, creating solutions and finding relevant innovation questions will require a specific design.

The leader might have an important role here, not only on setting up the design for conversations, but also on helping the team to be conscious of its own dynamics. How do we do what we do? What happens when we meet? Does our energy grow or decrease?

Even though consultants may be hired for this, the leader will increasingly need to think about the adequate space, dynamics and context for each different intention.


4. Create an open language, easily translatable that can be appropriated by the team. It’s amazing how rarely we stop to create new questions, open semantic fields (ie, conversations to share emerging questions and build new metaphors). There are teams that don’t even stop to build a deep understanding of the organization’s strategy. To create new language is a cornerstone of innovation because we live the mental maps we create and these maps are based on language and images. An open language, in beta, in permanent composition, as in open programming, is an opportunity for new types of appropriation and creative work.


5. Assign responsibility and seek responsiveness. On one hand, YES, there is performance to be delivered and the team is responsible for it. But responsiveness is related to the ability to creatively and timely respond to business challenges. It has to do with the ability to surprise and at the same time be relevant. Good relationships and trust among members of the team must then be combined with execution skills.


6. Create boarders, not limits. As Maturana and Avila put it, limits are walls, and boarders are like mobile fences that can be explored and moved to some extent. It is the leaders role to keep the boarders clear and open to creative exploration. Not everything is possible, but it is fundamental to foster new questions and at the same time give containment.


7. Search for meaning. With the volume of information and connections we have today, sensemaking is one of the biggest challenges for all professionals who want to be engaged with networks that are meaningful  for their work areas. Harold Jarche mentions the abilities to Seek, Sense and Share as the basis of personal knowledge management. Not by chance is sensing the central process. The team could be “the” place to share the knowledge being generated in the networks of each person, and to discuss the filters that were used to process information. After all it is in conversation with peers who can challenge us that we generate knowledge. The leader may have an active role by creating context for dialogue and collective information mapping. He can also help the team understand what is most relevant. It’s easy to get lost when the forest is dense, and networks are dense.

Storytelling, something so valued these days, is also an important part of sensemaking, but we are talking, in this case, about making sense collectively in a team. What is the story we are all building together as we do our work?


8. Recognize. The more people share their thoughts out in the open networks, the more necessary to recognize the authorship of ideas. Thoughts are on a network to be appropriated by others, but giving credit is the basis of long lasting sharing. That is, for example, the principle behind the creative commons license. This so called “hacker ethics can be applied to the team context in the sense that people will increasingly share if they feel recognition and connection to others’ ideas.


There are many other ideas that would make a great debate, but I’d like to attempt a synthesis: the organization can be a platform for the expression of emerging talents and leaders can be the conversational weavers of those platforms. Innovation is a natural consequence.

Are you prepared?


Holistic Approach to Learning

I´ve recently read the post by Frédéric Domon at the ecollaborative blog site. He describes in a very precise manner the origin and the consequences of the 70-20-10 approach to the design of learning strategies and budget allocation.

The concept is not new to me, but something caught my attention in this particular post. As Frédéric puts it: “Rather than think of these three forms of antagonistic professionalism, rather than leave the informal to other aspects of the company, the model should be thought of as the cornerstone of organizational development. As the Princeton group advises, imagine a holistic approach integrating both formal and informal. An approach that enables strong development of that 70% of experience learning, that takes advantage of the relational 20% and that designs using the yardstick of the 90% informal and 10% formal training.”

The word holistic here is not a metaphor. It means that learning professionals must consider the full experience and the learning environment to design and adjust their strategies. As a consequence, it is necessary to consider not only the 70-20-10 paradigm, but also the culture of the organization, the past experiences with learning resources, the available technologies, established KPIs for learning, the predominant leadership style, and so forth.

I´ll give an example to illustrate my point. Recently, we visited a big construction company who is facing a major problem on workforce education. Their need is not to build knowledge management nor to introduce some sophisticated new tool, their problem is plain and simple: they need to recruit around 4000 new professionals, such as masons and foremen in 6 months and there is simply no availability of those professionals in the region they are building their new operation.

Plus, in Brazil there have been some serious problems in big infrastructure constructions, including riots, because of work conditions and lack of systemic coordination of such constructions. Learning is only one of the challenges being faced by such companies.

Going back to my client, we´ve made a proposal that included utilization of the good professionals they have internally to start a learning program that had a very important informal component (since there is no time to format and deliver formal programs). The reaction was surprising. The HR person seemed not to understand what we were talking about and we had to present the proposal two more times. We had presented a totally unusual approach to learning! The culture and the environment in that company could not fully understand what we were talking about, and so our proposal was refused.

Sometime later, me and my fellow consultant sat down to chat about it. We had read on the paper about the problems the company was facing which were, in part, caused by their poor response to this kind of problem. But hey! We had also lacked a good holistic understanding of their learning environment! Mea culpa. We too had come with a readymade pill! We can´t just go and introduce the 70-20-10 model into the construction business of an old Brazilian company!

So that is my point: the great challenge of this model is not only to build learning strategies around this idea, with which I totally agree by the way, but having the sensibility to understand the conditions under which a certain system can absorb this idea.

When I read Domon´s post it immediately brought me back to my clients table, and the face he had when we presented our sophisticated thoughts. We are hoping to find open minded organizations and have good conversations to solve the problems we have in this country around education and learning. The model might be something we keep under the table.

Metadesign and Innovation

On December 1st we had another interesting conversation here at JuntoSP, our coworking space in São Paulo. It was about metadesign but the innovation theme was brought up again, it seems to be what makes hearts and minds uneasy.

Ours guests were architect Caio Vassão and conversation designer Luiz Algarra, in addiction to some communication professionals, designers, executives, and partners from Dobra’s network as well. It was a really interesting mix of people.

Where does the term “meta” come from?

According to Vassão, the first term to use the prefix “meta” was “Metaphysics”. Legend has it, that it was a way to classify some of the books of prime philosophy by Aristotle, which had no name. As they were positioned after (meta) the physics books, the term metaphysics was created. But the word metaphysics has important consequences.

It refers to matters of ontology, namely, it belongs to the same category of thought we use to reflect about something, adopting the position of an observer of our own lives: a meta-position.

For me, Humberto Maturana´s question: “how do we do what we do?” is the great and powerful meta-question. We can ask ourselves about how we do physics, how we work or how we design the spaces we inhabit. “The metadesign is the project’s own design project,” says Vassão.

He gave the example of the program METAFONT, a publishing system that, as the name says, programs fonts. The person who programmed the system to program fonts, was a metadesigner.

It’s as if life had layers and we were rising and rising to increasingly higher levels to observe what we do. These layers, Vassão says, are levels of abstraction. Being a Metadesigner is to place oneself in a higher level of abstraction to reflect upon the reality being created.

Metadesign and complex systems

When we face complex systems, as an organization or a community, for example, we can’t create a closed project.

The system is constantly changing and adapting. Metadesign then creates an environment of decisions made of few basic guidelines, criteria that make life easier for those working within the system. These criteria are not control parameters, but operators to guide action within the system which are validated (or not) by use.

The principle behind it is that simple elements can generate complexity. Reversing this reasoning, we may say it is possible to find the simple elements that build a complex system. The Metadesign seeks to identify those simple elements a posteriori, creating what Pierce called opportune categorical system.

Shared criteria for operating in a complex system: it is easier to say than to define them, but they can help us give a positive answer to the question “is it possible to project complexity?” If we think about working and learning contexts, this is a key question, since the growing connectivity and availabity of information increases the complexity of the systems we operate in. It is a great temptation to simply categorize and cut the system to pieces to understand it, with great risks of ending up with inadequate analytic answers.

Algarra pointed a critical distinction: what makes us human is that we talk about these criteria or ontology. This is one of the foundations of the collective intelligence concept, which rises in Bateson (Steps to the Ecology of Mind) and is further developed by Pierre Levy.

That might sound harsh, “headstrong”, ultra-reflective, but then another interesting concept was brought to stimulate the conversation: the homo ludens. According to this concept, the basis of culture is a play.

Then what makes us human is our ability to play with concepts and ontologies, to play with the design of how we live what we live. Playing is an essential, yet overlooked skill because it leads us to revise, combine and generate concepts creatively.

We lead the life we are able to perceive and talk about. Playing with concepts that underlie our lives would be metadesign.

From this point on talking about innovation was inevitable.

What is innovation anyway?

Algarra brought up Maturana, and proposed innovation emerges to save something we want to conserve. We want to conserve a way of life, the possibility to have affordable energy, the possibility of dealing with scarce resources and yet have comfort; we want to sustain the business of an organization. Actions, ideas and changes are articulated on the basis of what we want to conserve.

Vassão suggests: innovation is manipulating ontologies. We can do it top down from pre-defined categories or bottom up as we watch the events and create ontologies from this observation. For Vassão, this second path is much more innovative.

So innovation would be “to confront the cognitive boundaries of the reality that we build.” I´ve  twitted this statement of Vassão´s and Paulo Ganns (@ pganns suggested:) “Breaking instead of confronting?”. Well, maybe innovating is “dissolving the cognitive boundaries of the reality we build.”

But why innovate? Where does this desire come from?

Again we returned to the point of the previous meeting: the reason why of innovation.

We discussed two opinions about the origin of our motivation to action: the reaction (negative motivation generated by a  perception of error) or affection (according to Deleuze, affections are our real drivers). People who work with innovation know it very well that there is a big difference between these two motivations!

Innovating in response is not the same as innovating in search of a path built upon affection and desire. It is much more difficult to generate radical innovation from the first path, when the decay of something is imminent, but, yes, there are many who only get moving in this kind of situation. We are inside the box.

Then someone says: we live in alienation, we lack awareness of where we are, and it is difficult to be connected to one´s own emotions when we’re trapped in this kind of place.

Think outside the box? What box?

The box would be this ontology, these categories of thought that inhabit us without our being aware and determine what we can see. A metadesign conversation opens these boxes and these categories to reflect and play with them. As Maturana would say: Do I want to conserve this way of thinking?

Is Innovation always a good thing?

That got us into a conversation about the binomial innovation x ethics, and about how we think of innovation in a complex system (the communities where we live in).

In a complex context, an innovation unleashes a series of systemic reactions. Vassão reported the case of the pocket car project in which he participates.

Thinking about a new type of car means rethinking the entire production chain of the car. If the engine is oversimplified what will happen to the jobs of steelworkers who make engines? If the cars are shared, what will happen with the insurance companies?

As consequence, we can consider that the real challenges of innovation begin, in fact, after a new product or action is launched. Innovation needs will be multiplied by the actions we have to take to deal with the systemic consequences of that launch.

How do innovations emerge in culture?

Innovation irradiates through new concepts that will penetrate and spread in a given culture. It may be a new product, but it may simply be a new concept with which we begin operating.

Someone asks: does it come from a new need? Or we create new needs?

Who needed the cellphone before it existed? The need seems to be more of a consequence. The innovation arises; we become accustomed to what it provides. From then on the need emerges and is nurtured.

But innovation goes far beyond product, services and processes. It may simply be a concept, a new way of living. (The term “to stay” – for example, was created less than 20 years ago to name faster forms of love relationships – in Brazil at least).

These easily replicable concepts that change our lives are memes.

Thus innovating is agencing possibilities. If you do not understand it yet, do not worry, if you are curious about it, read a bit of Deleuze, but let´s make it simple: possibilities are vectors that are available, someone or something finds an intersection or a new combination of these vectors, and voilá here’s the innovation.

Being attentive to the events that emerge around us without categorizing them a priori, allows us to think of new ontologies.

Innovation is experimental, says Vassão.

Yes, we live in Beta.

Mariana Gogswell, another colleague places: “How can we develop the emotional resources to live like this?”

Good question! We´ll stick with this one and reflect upon its consequences to education, learning, smart work and innovation.

“I store my knowledge in my friends”

amazing human pyramid in Barcelona

amazing human pyramid in Barcelona

This phrase, suggested by Rae Tanner during yesterday´s on line learning trends and innovation conference stroke me as one of the biggest insights about what web 2.0 means to our learning environments, to knowledge management and, ultimatelly, to our lifes.

An insight could be defined as an intuitive grasping of the inner nature of things. I think the phrase just fits the definition.
Wich new world is this where we can say that phrase?

“I store my knowledge in my friends.” As I know more and more people on line and have such easy acess to them, new doors are literally open as I, for example, can visit their favourite sites instantly. I don´t know everything, but I know people who know a lot! It might seem obvious, but it takes such a burden out of our backs and makes life much more interesting. Ideas can really emerge out of these chaotic connections. For me it is complexity materialized into reflection, production and what else might come. This might take us to another state, as Prigogine might say.

So, I´ll share some links that online friends have shared with me .

but there was much more…

Deidre B sugested the term social learning designer to define our new roles as learning professionals.

Jay Cross says “simplicity is the ultimate sofistication” (to wich I totally agree).

Ross Button is developing an internet inside type of 2.0 corporate solution and

Mireille Jansma is reflecting upon how dialogue methods and web 2.0 interact (so am I).

Hope the headline phrase makes sense to you too. The people you need to meet just might be out there.

Tks to all!