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?


Open Innovation: Cracking the black Box

We are opening the Black Box of innovation. In fact, social media is forcing many black boxes to open based on a more free way of making large scale conversations. Open innovation is part of this movement. It is not only a matter of amplifying the search for ideas or the interaction with clients and suppliers. Open Innovation is part of a greater movement, of a Zeitgeist based on open creative fields. But what does this new concept tell us? If there is open innovation would there be a “closed innovation”?

Black Box Instalation by Tom Friedman

Last month we had a Conversation Jam sponsored by Dobra on this theme and our guests were Caspar Bart Van Rijnbach and Caio Vassão at JuntoSP coworkin.


“Closed Innovation”?

According to Caspar, this closed concept of innovation comes from Industrial Revolution, and the creation of the intellectual property is its cornerstone. This vision was dominant at least until the 1990s, when the greatest reference on innovation was 3M and its ultra secretive product development process.

A strong opposition to that idea only emerged after free software. Richard Matthew Stallman, or rms, founder of the movement preaches that all information wants to be free. But that started only in 1985, getting stronger during the 1990s and being crowned with the Cluetrain Manifesto (1999), that introduced the “open” philosophy in the business environment via marketing.

So the idea that a highly innovative production system can be based on the absence of intellectual property is very recent. It generates a radical inversion: those who do not open their innovation process are losing time. Sharing multiplies knowledge and thus makes new possibilities emerge.


Why Opening?

Caspar also stated the difference between open innovation and open ideation. The open ideation shares, and therefore opens, problem solving or idea generation processes of an organization, but the greatest impacts of open innovation do not come from this type of initiative.

In order to access the greatest benefits of open innovation, it is necessary to think about how the business strategy develops over time, understanding why and in what level it makes sense for the company to be open.


Lessons from free software

The development of free software is based on the voluntary engagement of talents to solve problems in the benefit of a community (of users and developers themselves). There is no money involved, but anyone can use it. “Do your best and be recognized”. Self motivation is the key and reputation is the necessary consequence.

But are organizations prepared for this type of self motivated free engagement, at least on innovation matters?

Are organizations able to foster the intelligence of their internal networks?

From a people management point of view this is a radical idea that shakes systems such as career and performance management, to say the least.


Innovation and Motivation

For Caio Vassão, the central theme is: what motivates innovation inside a company? How are innovative ideas validated?

But we can go even further: a key challenge to the open innovation process is to listen to innovation perspectives brought by partners from outside the company´s boundaries.  Does the organization let itself be modified by its network? Or is it going only as far as its own questions allow?

According to Paul Pangaro, variety is one of the most important conditions for innovation. Activating this variety in a collective creative process is a big qualitative leap for innovation networks. Caio Vassão argues in the same direction: innovation is a change in the ontology of the organization. It refers to the categories the company uses to organize its processes, its relationships and the routine discourses. The ontology determines choice mechanisms that can limit or amplify the variety the organization accesses to innovate.

Ontologies in a network are emergent. It is very complex for an organization to deal with them when its planning and management systems are based on pre existing taxonomies. Conversation usually goes around “growth pillars” and “strategic vectors” everyone should follow.

At the same time, there is enormous potential to that. There might be many innovation possibilities that are just not perceived by the mental model and the installed conversation patterns.


Innovating is dealing with paradoxes

So it seems that innovating in an open way means dealing with a fundamental paradox: being connected to what emerges and, at the same time, being able to make sense of it through strategy.

Since the ability to deal with paradoxes is one of the fundamental properties of complex adaptative systems, it seems we are getting somewhere. That is how it works in nature: clarity of purpose and deep connection to the environment at the same time.


A new mindset

An interesting view was presented by designer Ihon Yadoya at our Jam: “I don´t feel limited by the work environment. Innovation opens itself naturally when we solve our problems.” For those who think that way, the company is not a limit. Openness is inherent to innovation, something that is always available when we need it. This is an important mindset change. From the individual´s point of view, there is no closed innovation.

For those who work in connected environments, an idea generates a series of interactions and compositions. There are no boundaries to this. One more challenge for organizations facing the so called Y generation, one that lives in remix, and in eternal beta.

“Ideas belong to those that put them to action”- says Ihon. It´s as simple as that!


Who is ready?

The challenge is this collective authorship of ideas. And here some fundamental ideas on open innovation and strategy introduced by Caspar might help. He brought the example of companies that take part on the Battle of Concepts, promoted in Brazil by Terraforum. They are obviously worried about intellectual property.

But how do companies get ready for this new reality? Strategic thinking, says Caspar.

Kip Garland, brings his contribution and makes some important distinctions. For him, there are three levels of open innovation: sharing, building and decision making. Opening the decision process is the most complex level and sharing challenges is the less complex. Sharing refers to creating a collaborative network, building refers to bringing in each member´s strength and decision making… well, that´s where the greatest dilemmas are.

Caio agrees: making distinctions and choosing what to open is key. A reductionist view does not generate a process of collective construction. If the open innovation project is designed exclusively to profit from “Lei do Bem”, a innovation policy in Brazil, the benefits are reduced. The open mindset does not penetrate the culture.

Caspar presented the Phillips Innovation Camp case, which brings together many partners of the company to an environment where architecture contributes to make people meet and exchange ideas. There are no cars. An open culture emerges.


Shortening the thought-to-action cycles

Caio considers that open innovation is related to a short thought-to-action cycle. Somebody perceives a new reality arrangement, new ontologies emerge, unseen opportunities arise.

Kip brings the Visa Vale case to the table. The company was conceived by an ABN Amro Real bank executive who understood the consequences of a change in Brazilian regulation laws. In Five years, a 2 billion dollar business was created… outside the Banks boundaries. The institution could not evaluate the executive´s proposal of a new business when he was still an employee. It was a path that could not be analysed by the ontologies the company had at that point.

The challenge therefore is: how do we present business concepts that don´t yet exist? How are we able to listen to the proposals open innovation can bring? How do we distinguish what is relevant?

For the group that was present at our Jam, one of the most important answers is creating prototypes that materialize these possibilities. There is a certain simplicity to that: creating prototypes is storytelling to present ideas.

Caio suggests: then it is not a question of what we have to build, but of what we have to take away for motivated people to be able to present their ideas. It is about building open platforms and short cycles of prototyping inside and outside organizations, labs of new realities in which creation and action are closer and closer.

So much to do!

I Love Idea Jams!


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.

What is PKM?

PKM means Personal Knowledge Management. It consists of practical methods to make sense of the increasing flows of information around us. As explains Harold Jarche on his blog.

How do you build your personal learning environment?

In other words we are speaking about the personal capacity to be crossed by numerous information flows without being torn apart by them, and at the same time keeping in mind a singular personal guidance, a life project and the desire to absorb and produce knowledge.

Here we have a very interesting point because PKM is not just about how a person absorbs knowledge but also about his or her ability to produce and share it.  In PKM we don’t think only about ourselves but about our network and how we can feed it. What is the knowledge that only I could produce and share with my network?

Thus, personal knowledge management would be the basis for social knowledge management, facilitated and structurally catalyzed by technological tools that enable our networks today.

This view of knowledge management is quite innovative in the context of organizations, because much of what has been produced to guide knowledge management in this context is based on the organization’s centralized view: knowledge must be standardized, circulate and reach the right place.

The discussion of PKM changes the subject. It places the individual, his choices and his multiple networks at the heart of the game and starts to connect KM with such topics as career management, which had not featured in KM discussions so far.

Harold Jarche uses a model named “Seek, Sense and Share” to explain how he manages his personal knowledge but he admits “PKM is a personal process”.

Pierre Levy points out the importance of storytelling, since we are story producers as we interact and talk in our networks. He’s dedicated his time to a very interesting and profound discussion on the semantics of the web.

Stephen Downes and Internet Time Alliance group talk about Personal Learning Environments and bring to the discussion the many ways individuals organize their formal learning (performed in the school context driven, classroom or online courses) and informal learning (based on conversation skills and in the networks each one is involved).

With the individual at the center, the issue of diversity comes back. There are many ways of learning (Howard Gardner has defined 8 of them).Each person has a distinct way to absorb, to process and manage the learning process. How do we stimulate personal knowledge management taking this diversity into account?

I kept this question with me for few days. One of the possible answers that I heard in my network was the importance of defining interests and filtering information into categories. That’s interesting, but maybe quite a structured process for my personal learning style, so I went on with the question.

As we are exposed to numerous flows, perhaps our personal learning environment and PKM are emergent features of our lives, defined as our surrounding chaos takes form. Maybe these environments and the different ways to manage knowledge change as dynamically as the knowledge networks we develop around us.

It was then that I came across an article posted by Thierry de Baillon on his blog about complex organizations and the learning process. The author introduces the concept of micro-foundations of dynamic capabilities that give rise to emerging practices in organizations. This inspired me to think about the importance of PKM.

Maybe the individual and therefore his personal network could be the genesis of these micro-foundations. This view brings us a much more dynamic perspective on how practices in organizations could evolve. Concepts such as ‘best practices’ would be made obsolete if organizations could visualize and trust these micro-foundations. Why do we need one best practice if we can have a diversity of options as rich as the extended network that surrounds an organization?

Maybe this approach is fearful. It is barely impossible to control a complex system and it takes courage and trust to let practices emerge, but a lot of relevant knowledge, totally applied to work, could arise from the professional management’s capacity to be exposed and filter a diversity of flows. Why do we rather trust people to execute that to make choices?

This possibility can inspire us to rethink the meaning of promoting learning practices in the organizations. It is not a matter of mass customization only, but a fundamental change of the vision organizations have about the individual as a “resource” to be “used” in the most economical way as possible.

For the individual to be the genesis of emerging practices, he must have freedom to relate, to connect and to produce. Conversations must flow, as Humberto Maturana is teaching us, because they are at the heart of a dynamic culture. As it happens to a jellyfish taken from the sea to be observed, the individual dries when removed from his networks (for example through corporative firewalls). His PLE gets restricted and it loses much of the wealth he would have to offer.

The individual is also an emergent. The richness that he had when he was hired is not kept if his personal knowledge management environment is restricted or, in other words, if his network territory is encrypted by the organization. Perhaps it’s not necessary to control anything if each professional is really engaged in what he or she does.

Maybe we are the generation of difficult questions. We face a complex world but we don’t yet have the tools or the capacity to visualize solutions. There is a lot of conversation and exchanging ideas to be done.

The volcano as a metaphor of creativity

I recently visited the  Villarica Volcano in Pucon in Chile. Awesome!

Villlarica Volcano view

Villlarica Volcano view

One of the facts that puzzled me was to understand why people aren’t afraid to live so close of danger?

The Villarica Volcano is in continuous activity. According to the people that live there, the constant dropping of some type of smoke or remains is a sign of its volcanic health.

So while there are signs of fire… there is no disaster.

That made me think about how we deal with the creative process.

From my personal point of view, we are able to spend years feeling that our creative power is underutilised and do nothing about it.

“When I retire… when I get more money… when I have a comprehensive boss…” At last, we cover our personal crater and blame the inadequate present conditions. Inside us, the effervescence continues because life is intense and every person has a unique capacity of production.

How stressed can we get in this situation?

Suddenly, a vulcanic burst will wake us and we’ll question our profession, marriage, our way of building relationships and many other places of achievement that are part of our lives.

In organizations it often happens. People are immersed in their daily activities and suddenly innovation teams are assembled to produce major eruptions in a few days.

Of course, eruptions play their part. They may be signs of nature putting everything in its due place or may simply be power is showing it most amazing face. But the people of Pucón teach that constantly expelling some smoke may be much healthier.

Hence the importance of being always connected to our power, hence the importance of self achievement. At the organizational level, the existence of open processes of innovation in which everyone can contribute a little at a time could be a sign of  “volcanic health”.

It´s been known for a long time that the majority of historical cases of great instant discoveries are myths constructed by its own authors. Indeed, they’re results of years of research and the authors were in permanent activity.

Climbing up to the edge of Villarica´s crater to see the yellow patches of súlfur, the 360 degrees view and to hear the incredible noise of the lave, is only possible in these conditions. We may want to get away from eruptions.

Ivy Ross’s lessons: how to innovate in a team

Ivy Ross

Ivy Ross

Ivy Ross is a great executive that manages innovation processes, who is known for great achievements in companies like GAP and Mattel. It is worth listening to the lecture she gives the link below:
(the whole Business Innovation Factory website is very interesting!).

She regards her experience with the introduction of non orthodox dynamics such as clowns, music and visual arts, to engage her project teams. Ivy´s conclusion: the quality of the stimulus given to those groups and the confidence and harmony among participants has led them to thrive in their initiatives. For those who like numbers, in a certain project she commited to achieve a U$ 50 million in a 3 months mark!

Today she has condensed her method in only 4 days (I would like to see this!!). An interesting reflection that occurred to me is: “it is crucial that the manager of innovation is primarily a manager of people!”. For those who work as external facilitators of such projects, large parts of the success always depends on finding by a great internal facilitator and assemble, together, the type of ambience and dynamics necessary to imagine the future. This is what innovation is about.

For those who work within a large corporation, it may be very interesting to submit her case to prove that to invest in climate, in teams and in the search of favorable conditions for innovation is worth it.