I have previously written about Frameworks for Innovation, in which I described a process for innovation, and alluded to an organizational framework to aid in decision making and collaboration. Innovation is the job of the entire organization, but as you can see in the previous post, different people bring different abilities at different times. People also have different opinions and beliefs and different frameworks and sources for these opinions and beliefs. As organizations get larger, and projects get more complex, it becomes more difficult to make and stick to decisions that are good for the organization. I will write more on decision-making, or discernment later. For now I will focus on an organizational structure for innovation.
To research this, I referred to one of my favorite experts on the topic, Peter Drucker, as well as several experts who had experience managing innovation at large organizations. The pattern was obvious: this is challenging. Most companies are simply not innovative. Most businesses, even and especially large wealthy ones, are almost entirely vehicles of commercialization. There are far more CEOs with backgrounds in law and accounting than science and engineering. Inventors and creatives are consistently sidelined, eliminated, commanded, starved of resources, and silenced. They are drowned out and pushed aside by the stronger, louder voices of ambition, greed, and selfishness. If left unchecked, organizations naturally tend toward command and control hierarchies of "A type" business people that have forgotten their roots in creativity and innovation. Do not let this happen to you.
To fix this, or better yet, prevent this, the organization must be designed and maintained to have a culture of listening, balance, and execution. I propose a simple structure of association and listening instead of commanding and controlling.
First, the organization does indeed need structure. I remember many former peers in Silicon Valley extolling the virtues of a "flat" organizational structure. That people were allowed to work on whatever they wanted, that everyone was a founder, that there were startups within the startup. This leads to disaster. It is an over-correction. No. Small organizations should not be run as complex hierarchical bureaucracies like the military. But it should also not be anarchy. Organization needs structure, needs leadership, needs focus, and if done right, it will become a collaborative engine of innovation and execution. But what is the right balance of structure and freedom?
The leader of an organization is the "Listener in Chief". The leader must develop a process for hearing the ideas and concerns of everybody within the organization. If the organization is large, this process will be noisier and more complex than if it is small. But no matter how large, there will be obvious consistencies and patterns in the messages reaching the top. Then, the leader must make decisions, and stick to them. The group must be brought along in these decisions. There will be forces within the organization that, while well intentioned, will hurt the organization and distract it from its mission. These voices should not be allowed to take root. It is the responsibility of the leader to choose a wise path for the organization and generate, not force, consensus. I will write more on community discernment later.
Once the ideas have been heard, and the path forward decided upon, then it is time to execute on the Framework I referred to before:
Ideas -> Experiments -> Initiatives -> Products
The remaining complexity here is that different people within the organization must contribute in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons.
I suggest a somewhat clear delineation between the Innovation and the Commercialization teams. And, the flow of information between the innovation and commercialization teams is critical. You must build bridges. Good ways to do this include regular lunches, happy hours, and retreats, mixing members of the teams in casual settings, and periods of time where people on one team go and work for the other team. They are not enemies. They are not opposites. They are different but equally important. Ideas can come from either team. It is important to help break down the barriers to people on either team listening and sharing their true thoughts and unstructured or loosely structured settings are a great way to do so.
The process starts almost entirely within the innovation team, and ends almost entirely within the commercialization team, but do not simply deliver or "dump" a prototype on the commercial team and tell them to clean it up and launch it. People must be involved in the process, brought along with the process, they must all feel ownership of the idea. They all want it to be successful. Do not allow politics to take root. Do not let people compete for credit or glory or resources or undercut others they see as competitors. Individuals do not own or get credit for ideas. The organization owns the idea. But yes you should reward people for outstanding contributions. Public recognition is one of the best ways to do so.
It is a good rule of thumb to treat the Experiment phase as the point of crossover between the Innovation and Commercialization team. But we are dealing with people and I suggest a loose structure here, a gradient. If individual innovators want to focus more purely on ideas or commercializers want to focus more on products closer to completion that is fine. But it is important that a bridge exists. If it does not, the commercial team will fail to see the potential in a buggy half-finished product, and the innovation team will fail to understand what is possible and what is necessary for commercialization and their ideas and experiments will be hindered or irrelevant.
Below is a rough diagram of what I envision as an organizational structure for innovation and commercialization. By default, I see most organizations are heavily weighted toward commercialization and a good place to start is by elevating the innovators.