The crucial role of networks in helping firms generate and execute new ideas

Interpersonal networks within organizations have a huge influence on how successfully firms can generate and execute new ideas, says innovation professor Tim Kastelle.

Interview #25 in the Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Tim Kastelle, Senior Lecturer in Innovation Management at the University of Queensland Business School.

Tim has held senior positions in a variety of industries, where he developed an interest in the role of innovation and firm growth which led to an MBA and PhD. His broad research interests are the impact of innovation on firm and economic growth, and the application of complex network analysis to the study of innovation at the levels of the firm, region, sector and nation.

His current projects include the evolution of national innovation systems, how internal structures influence innovation outcomes in project-based firms, and a study of internal networks within an organization and their impact on innovation performance.

His corporate research and consulting partners include Brisbane City Council, Ergon Energy Corporation, Fusidium Pty Ltd, Queensland Health, Rio Tinto, GHD Engineering, Teys Australia, and Fairfax Digital among others. Tim also runs the UQ Business School’s Innovation Leadership Executive Education and MBA Programs. He blogs about innovation on the Innovation Leadership Network Blog.

Q: How does your work relate to creativity?

Kastelle: Creativity is a core part of innovation. However, one of the common mistakes that I often see in organizations is that people end up thinking that creativity and innovation are only about generating ideas. When you take this view, then the obvious way to become more creative, and consequently more innovative is to figure out ways to have more ideas.

I’ve done some informal research in my MBA and Executive Education courses, and out of the more than 100 organizations that I’ve surveyed, only 4 have identified themselves as being ideas-poor. The rest have problems either with selecting the best ideas, executing their ideas, or getting their ideas to spread. To me this is a crucial point – if we are going to improve innovation, we actually need to get better at those other steps, not just at generating ideas.

On a personal level, executing ideas is a central part of my creative work as well. I generate ideas all the time – too many probably! But they don’t become real until I actually figure out how to communicate them. In my case, that means either writing them out (in a blog post, an academic paper, or even just a note to myself), or teaching them. In both cases I end up trying to use stories to communicate the idea. Once I figure out the right story, then I am more confident in thinking that the idea might be useful.

In my research, I look at the impact of knowledge-sharing networks on creativity and innovation. The structure of interpersonal networks, both within and between firms, has a huge influence on how successfully firms can generate and execute new ideas. Because my research is based on networks, I end up seeing network stories in everything, even creativity!

Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?

Kastelle: I think that the new paradigm of work is best represented in the shift from hierarchical forms of control to networked organizations. Interpersonal networks are important even within the most hierarchical organization. However, we are starting to see more instances where the network is the organization. This is particularly true of organized movements that take place outside of the boundaries of a traditional firm, as in open source software development, or open innovation.

In order to be successful in this paradigm, we have to proactively think about and manage our personal networks. One of the key features of networks is that people have more autonomy – this provides more opportunity, and it also tends to make work more interesting.

Q: What do you see the role of creativity in that paradigm?

Kastelle: Creativity and innovation are the key outcomes of this form of organization. Trying to improve innovation outcomes has been one of the key drivers in shifting to networks. Creativity and innovation are emergent outcomes from networks. Consequently, we need to try develop network structures within our organizations that support and encourage creativity.

In practical terms, this means actively working to build connections across silos. This can be done in a number of ways: making cross-functional teams, using communities of practice, and building internal social networks are three common tools that help with this.

In addition to thinking about the structure of internal connections, we also have to consider our external networks. How do we connect up with suppliers, customers, and complementary organizations? Again, the structure of these networks has a big impact on the types of ideas we generate and on our ability to execute these ideas. So creativity is a critical outcome of this form of organizing, and we can also be creative in the way that we build our networks.

Q: What attitudes and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Kastelle: There are several essential behaviors here. The first is that we have to get better at forming connections with people that have different thinking styles and attitudes. A common trap in networks is that people are most likely to form connections with the people that are most similar to themselves. This is the most comfortable approach, however, this approach leads to low levels of diversity in thinking.

Groups are more creative and innovative if they are diverse – not necessarily in terms of gender or race, but more importantly in terms of thinking style, culture, and expertise. These types of connections are harder to build and maintain – which is why skill in this area is one key behavior.

The attitudes that drive this behavior are curiosity and empathy. Curiosity is obviously a key component of creativity, but it is also important in network building. It is easier to make connections with people with diverse mindsets if you are genuinely curious about how they view things. Empathy then allows you to understand these divergent viewpoints.

Q: What is one tool, technique or approach that people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?

Kastelle: I have two tools – one to help with creativity and one to help with networks:

First, to improve your creative/innovative outputs, focus on taking action. Pick one great idea you’ve had that you still haven’t executed. Figure out what next steps are needed to test it out, or to make it real. Now here’s the hard part – take five minutes right now, and get the first step started. And I really mean right now – don’t read the next tip, or the last answer. Take some action, then come back and finish reading. It’s only through action that we make our ideas real.

Secondly, for building your networks, I’m going to recommend something that Tom Peters has been advocating for a long time: think of the freakiest person you know in your organization – someone that just seems weird, or that makes you uncomfortable – and invite them to lunch, or a coffee. When you’re with them, ask about what they’re working on right now, or what they find interesting. If you do this, you’ll probably end up with some ideas that you would never have gotten otherwise, and more importantly, you just added some real diversity to your personal network.

Q: What is creative leadership to you?

Kastelle: Innovation is just as important in leadership and management as it is in any other part of work. People often think that innovation is just about coming up with new products or services, but one of the most important forms of innovation is coming up with new ways of doing things. Creative leadership is about doing precisely that – developing innovative ways to lead and manage.

In more practical terms, creative leadership is mainly about two things: inspiration and removing obstacles. Leaders need to show people where the organization might be heading, and they need to inspire people to head in that direction. In order to do this successfully, leaders need to remove obstacles along the path.

In a networked organization, the job of the leader is not to tell people what to do, but rather to figure out what might stop them from doing the things that need to get done and addressing those problems. The best leaders are the ones that realize that management is a support role, not a directive one.

The Creativity in Business Thought Leader Interview Series is from business creativity catalyst, Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and Quantum Leap Business Improv.

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