I was thinking back to an old New Yorker article recently. In the piece, Atul Gawande (of The Checklist Manifesto fame) analyzes the types of attributes that make some innovative ideas spread quickly and others spread much more slowly. It’s an interesting take on the progression of medicine, but has some great insights for organizations as well.
One of the key points that he makes is that adoption of innovative ideas depends in large part on face-to-face social diffusion processes – “people talking to people.” These interactions complement and ultimately amplify other diffusion processes (such as technology or incentives) to fundamentally shape the norms or culture of an organization towards new ways of thinking and behaving.
As organizations become increasingly complex and employees more globally distributed, a challenge for leaders is to ensure that solutions are in place to help people communicate, share ideas, and adopt innovative practices across the entire company.
One of the ways in which this challenge manifests itself is through the localization of innovation. I’m sure that many companies have pockets of excellence where the norms are towards continuous improvement and innovation, as well as pockets where that behavior is less common. Unfortunately, there are any number of barriers that prevent diffusion and scaling of ideas across the boundaries of those pockets.
Businesses are increasingly recognizing that technology and incentives are no longer sufficient drivers to overcome those barriers; instead, a holistic solution is needed that emphasizes human-centered technology and empowering rather than restrictive, compliance-oriented policies.
This is certainly a growing trend across varied areas like performance reviews, feedback, and social recognition- spheres where technology is enabling a better quantity and quality of human-to-human interaction. In these cases, emphasis is placed less on prescriptive rules and more on exemplars of positive development and achievement. These solutions are able to capture all of this and spread it more widely throughout the organization.
Take for example a performance review process that highlights a team member’s innovation in completing a challenging project that the rest of the team can learn from. Or take the example that is provided by peer recognition of how a colleague has taken her own area of expertise and applied it to a new area in the company with positive results. Finally, consider the feedback that a manager offers to demonstrate improvements on a core process that each team member can adopt.
These types of solutions offer a new view of the organization, where the spread of innovation through “people talking to people [through technologies and processes]” is strengthened and pockets of excellence grow. Returning to the article that opened this post, it is an approach that requires people to be “on the ground” to ensure that these dynamics become self-propagating.
How would you set up your company to thrive based on the spread of innovation?
As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is the co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.