The primary unit of innovation is not the individual. Instead, it is the network that extends inside and outside [the organization]. –Making Innovation Work, Davila, Epstein & Shelton

The previous post about leading innovators may make a reader believe that the innovator is one possessing the gifts of super-powers. Seems as if he or she can do all of the things just described with ease, but the reality is that effective innovators were able to succeed because of their attachments to networks that served as idea generation and experimentation incubators.

Networks are powerful. If one takes into consideration the old adage that two heads think better than one, imagine having five or six heads, or even networks of thinking heads around the globe, connected to one’s organizational effort. Most organizations survive on systems that create predictability, sustainability, efficiency, and order. Although that appears to be the right organizational place to be, when it comes to innovation, rarely do innovations spur in those environments.

In fact, history has taught us that innovations result from the product of divergent thinking environments that thrive on disorder, imagination, and ambiguity. This is one reason why leaders who successfully lead innovation facilitate the environment and structure for innovative networks inside and outside the organization.

Leading Innovators at Work 

Can we think of examples of innovators as architects of innovation networks? Jorma Ollila, Chairman and CEO of Nokia, made it a point to build innovative networks inside the organization, not only to generate ideas but also to test them.

Nokia’s network design in the early 2000s was a variety of venturing innovation incubators that were linked to existing Nokia businesses, in addition to external venturing efforts that extended beyond existing businesses, technologies, and markets. This type of incubator mentality is a large part of how Nokia creates and profits from innovation.

In 2009, the Finnish telecommunications giant announced a move to collaborate with other businesses and share their unused ideas in the areas of environmental and energy-related solutions, location-based services and advertising, and several other ideas to include future internet services.

As some proposed, because the ideas were generated within the context of Nokia’s business, if those partnerships could turn the ideas into commercial use, then Nokia would win. From the standpoint of Nokia, these ventures could also set the stage for future innovations.

Another example that is telling about the innovator as an architect of networks is General Stanley McChrystal, assigned as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

In his book Team of Teams, he described the mode of military operations in the pursuit of terrorist cells in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military forces pursuing these terrorist cells were at a disadvantage. AlQaeda in Iraq, he noted, posed a different threat from an army; it was small, agile, and dispersed.

In turn, McChrystal reinvented the structure of military forces in the theater of operations, breaking the silos that impeded communications among elite units and those who supported them.

He drew what he termed “mutable relationships” between elements, creating networks that were more autonomous, able to learn quickly, and agile in execution. In the end, many of the barriers that also included hierarchies were dissolved in lieu of smaller networks that could be more agile, so information could be brought to decision makers quickly.

Reflection Moment 

The example above lead us to reflect on two areas: network complexity and Information flow.

  1. Network complexity. You can start by thinking about internal networks and then move to external. Map them. Do your internal networks look like innovation incubators? If they are built bureaucracy over bureaucracy, it is time to architect something new. Externally, you want to see who and where are your idea generators. You will recognize them. They are the honest people around you who electrify you with imagination. Keep them close and return their energy.
  2. Information flow. Organizations are information-processing units. The more efficient the organization is at processing information and getting it to the right people, the better it will be at facilitating innovation. Where do you see crucial information being stuck? Do people in the organization share? Why yes or why not? 


The next post in this 4-part series will explore the last characteristic of leading innovators. Read you soon!

Always motivated, lugo

©2018 LugoSantiago Enterprise Group

References and Notes:

Chakravarthy, B. & Yau, D. 2017, “Becoming global leaders: innovation challenges for five large Chinese firms”, Strategy & Leadership, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 19-24.

Collins, L. (2009). Nokia to give away ideas and innovations. Research Technology Management, 52(5), 4-5.

Davila, T., Epstein, M., & Shelton, R. 2006, Making innovation work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, pp. 24, 41.

Hickman, C. & Raia, C. 2002, “Incubating innovation”, The Journal of Business Strategy, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 14-18.

McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. 2015, Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world, New York, NY: Penguin Random House, pp. 18-20.