Last month I wrote a piece on the impact that open innovation is having across a range of industries. In it, I discussed how open collaboration, peer review, and other components are helping organizations deliver better results, reduce silos, and more. In this second part, I want to cover some practical recommendations for how you can harness this and integrate it into your organization.
I work as a community strategy consultant, where I often build internal communities to help companies become more efficient, optimize teams, and break down silos. Much of these recommendations I utilize every day in my own work.
Build a Permissive Culture
The core of open innovation is building a permissive culture that supports people being creative, collaborating, and delivering new work. As I discussed in the last part, you can’t tell people to innovate. You need to instead provide an environment that supports people to innovate.
- Be Explicit From the Top-Down: a permissive environment has to start from the top. Work with your executive team to set expectations about what a “permissive environment” looks like. We need the execs to encourage, inspire, and foster people to be creative, generate ideas, and collaborate with others around those ideas, even if outside of the core duties.
- Showcase Examples: where you see examples of open innovation, have your company leads and managers celebrate it. We want to show that open innovation is not merely tolerated, but celebrated.
- Carve out 20% Time: one approach many companies use is to allow people to use 20% of their time to work on projects that interest them but are work- related. This is where much of the innovation brews.
- Encourage Cross-Team Collaboration: focus on encouraging people across different teams to work together. Sometimes the greatest innovation comes from places you least expect it.
Building the permissive culture is key, and typically comes from a leadership capacity. We also need to ensure people can independently collaborate, and this leads us to…
Build Asynchronous Workflow
When I work with organizations who have an active culture of open collaboration, the core is asynchronous workflow. This is a set of electronic tools that allow people to work on anything, from anywhere, and at any time. For example, in technology companies this may include GitHub/GitLab for code collaboration, Trello for project management, Google Docs for document creation, and other tools.
While there will be debate about which tools to use, what is more important to focus on is what these tools enable; focus on the following:
- Accessible: try to ensure your tools are accessible from anywhere, both in the office, but also remotely (such as with a VPN). This will ensure people are always connected wherever they are.
- Default to Open: where possible, try to keep all discussions open to everyone. For example, someone might share an idea for a feature from one team, and we want people from other teams to be able to feed in and evolve it.
- Record Online: feel free to have discussions in person, but always record outcomes, next steps, and actions in an online record. This will ensure that everyone who wasn’t in that in-person discussion can still stay up to date.
- Maintain History: one of the major benefits of working asynchronously is that you build a history of how ideas are forged, evolved, and developed. Treat this history as a teaching moment, learn from it, and share it with new recruits so they can learn context.
- Be Inclusive: importantly, foster a culture that is inclusive, not just of underrepresented groups, but also a diverse range of teams, ideas, and perspectives. Diversity makes for better ideas and work, so encourage and foster it.
Remember that asynchronous workflow is a machine that will evolve and adjust. Start small, get people using it, and then evolve and grow based on people’s needs.
Integrate Peer Review and Workflow
At the heart of collaboration is peer review; that is, people producing work that their peers will review and propose suggestions for refinements. As such, you should put in place ways in which people can (a) independently create things (e.g. designs, software, documentation etc), and (b) have a process in which they can solicit feedback.
As an example, in software there is the notion of a “pull request,” where someone can take a copy of some code, make a change, and then submit the change for review (this submitted change is called a pull request). Other people then provide feedback and when those changes are integrated, they are merged into the main repository of code. This provides a powerful asynchronous workflow based around peer review.
While delivering a peer review methodology, also bear in mind some key psychological behavioral economics principles that play a role in how we collaborate:
- The Ikea Effect: if you and I were to put together the exact same Ikea table (or build something else), we will each think our respective table is somehow better or more valuable. Thus, we put more value into the things we make, often overstated value.
- Autonomy: choice is critically important to people. If we don’t feel we have control of our destiny, that we can make choices, we feel boxed in and restricted.
Remember, collaboration is fundamentally a psychologically-driven activity, so being mindful of our psychological drivers can help to ensure we deliver something as human and humane as possible
Track Reputation and Build Incentives and Engagement
Another key element of building an open company culture is to carefully carve out how you will track great work and incentivize and encourage that kind of behavior. There are two considerations here:
- Measuring Participation: create a way of getting a quantitative representation of the quality of that person’s work. This can be as involved as building a complex system for tracking individual actions and weighting their value, or as simple as observationally watching how people work. What is important here is that people should be judged on their merit, and not factors such as how much they schmooze with the bosses, or how many donuts they bring to the office.
- Incentives and Rewards: based on this representation of their work we need to provide different incentives and rewards to encourage the behavior we want to see.
Fundamentally, people are very receptive to incentives. As such, you should identify the kind of behavior you want to see (e.g. people collaborating around new ideas, shipping products, mentoring people etc) and incentive that. This can be executed via campaigns, competitions, special initiatives, and rewards.
Speaking of rewards, they are a powerful tool for encouraging people to follow the incentive. Importantly, there are two core types of rewards:
- Extrinsic: these are material in nature, such as T-shirts, hoodies, gift cards, money, and more.
- Intrinsic: these are of the more touchy-feely kind, such as respect, recognition, and admiration.
Both are important and it is important to get the right balance of these rewards. Based on the behavior you want to encourage, I recommend putting together incentives that inspire action and rewards that validate those actions.
Finally, it can be helpful to subdivide your staff into different groups based on their work and engage them in different ways. For example, people who are new will benefit from mentoring, support, and wider guidance. On the other hand, the most active and accomplished staff members can be used as a tremendous source of insight, guidance, and them enjoying playing a role in helping to shape the company culture further.
Good luck with as you build out your open innovation culture, and be sure to share with me how you get on!