Pulling in Ideas to Improve Innovation

One of the key ideas in The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison is that changes in the business environment are leading to a situation where rather than creating great ideas and then pushing them out to the world, we need to take advantage of knowledge flows by pulling in ideas and resources. Hagel does a good job of outlining six of the factors leading to environmental change in his Tedx talk – it is well worth your time to watch it:

One of the key implications of this is that if we are going to execute a pull strategy, we need to have some gravity – we need to be able to draw people, resources and ideas towards us. How can we do this? Here are some ideas:

  • Create our own novel ideas: One of the ironies in this approach is that if we are going to pull resources to us, we need to give away some value. We need to create novel and innovative ideas that will help others improve their situation. In part, we need to have what Hugh MacLeod calls smarter conversations:

    Ask not what tools you want to use, ask how you want to change how you talk to people. All evolutions in marketing are evolutions in language. Those who can raise the level of conversation in any market, win.

  • Make it easy for people to find your smarter conversations: In the book they talk about increasing your ‘findability’. This part is tricky – if you’re not careful, you can fall back into using push strategies to promote your ideas. Social media is one way to increase findability. But so are the old-fashioned methods of building networks. This is where some of Seth Godin’s ideas are useful – find the people that care about what you’re talking about, and if your ideas are good, and you’re lucky, they’ll tell other people about them.

    Sunrise Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine, USA

  • Give up power: one final step is give up power – you have to get power out to the other members of your network. Here is how a review of the book in The Economist concludes:

    What does all this mean for firms? They will have to shift from a command-and-control approach to one in which the company becomes a platform for employees to make the best possible use their pulling power. That will mean pushing more resources from the corporate centre to those employees who are most exposed to change. Employees should also be encouraged to spend more time nurturing their networks both online and off, and tweeting to their heart’s content. Firms that ban their employees from using Facebook or Twitter may suffer the same fate as the big wooden effigy at the Burning Man festival, which, as you may have guessed, goes up in flames.

    In the book, they talk about the importance of empowering everyone in order to increase passion:

    As we begin to realize that scalable efficiency cannot see us through a shift to near-constant disruption, we will begin to see that performance improvement by everyone counts, not just performance improvement for “knowledge workers.”

    We will begin to redefine all jobs, especially those performed at the “bottom of the institutional pyramid,” in ways that facilitate problem solving, experimentation, and tinkering. This will foster more widespread performance improvement. Everyone, even the most unskilled worker, will be viewed as a critical problem-solver and knowledge-worker contributing to performance improvement. One need only walk through the assembly lines of a Toyota plant to see highly motivated workers who are passionate about their jobs because they can tangibly see how they are making a difference by tackling challenging work problems and contributing to greater value.

I was discussing ideas similar to these with a consulting client this morning. At the moment, they have an innovation process that is highly concentrated within the upper tier of management. They see a need to start including other managers in innovation, but they still can’t see how to get the low-skilled workers involved.

We talked about how if they can figure out to do this, it will lead to significant differentiation between them and the rest of their industry (one of their competitors was telling me last week about how one of their plants had more than 100% turnover in 2009 – which is mind-boggling in several ways!)

I don’t know if they can do it. I hope so – and I’m going to do my best to help them. One encouraging point is that they see a need to move towards a more knowledge-based business model in order to continue to do well over the longer term.

One key component in such a strategy is figuring out how to pull ideas, people and resources into the organization.

(Lighthouse photo from flickr/freefotouk under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “Pulling in Ideas to Improve Innovation

  1. Tim,

    Great post!

    However, I think you left out two important points that are often overlooked because they seem so obvious:

    Frankness: One reason it’s hard to innovate is that people often aren’t encouraged to say what is on their mind. Inevitably, information is often hidden and gets lost.

    Good Manners: Another pitfall is the pettiness which pervades many corporate environments. If everybody is looking to score points by belittling those around them, it’s hard for good ideas to gain traction.

    – Greg

  2. Thanks Greg! I agree that both of those points are important. In particular the issue of pettiness/points-scoring is critical. I just finished reading Tribal Leadership – an interesting book which outlines some of the reasons why that practice is so common. I’ll probably write about that next week…

  3. I agree that to move people and attract them, one way is to empower them. This does not necessarily mean passing on your power to them. It can mean that you help your audience realize their potential and show them what they can achieve with their ideas.

    Great post.

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