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Rasmus Kolding

Easy Innovation?

By June 21st 2011

Creating an innovative group of people is easy but expensive – that was the main point of a talk I heard the other day. Since innovation is usually thought to be difficult – why, after all, would we hire consultants to do it all the time – I think that the statement deserves further thought. The speaker was PhD-candidate Vaughn Tan of Harvard Business School, who does sociological research on highly innovative work groups; currently at high-end restaurants like the Danish Noma. Since in today’s haute cuisine there is a constant pressure to innovate, how do they create a group that will spawn new ideas continuously?

The reason that innovation then is expensive begins with the hiring process. According to Vaughn, innovative groups do not form if people are hired through a process where the seemingly best candidate for the job impresses in tests and interviews and thus selected accordingly. Rather Vaughn suggested that people enter the group through a process he calls “negotiated joining”, meaning simply that the candidate is given responsibility and works with the group for a lengthy period of time (like 2-3 months) before actually getting hired. This helps defining roles, clarifying mutual expectations and loosens up the work flows because it requires a flexible mentality and approach to the work. This is an expensive process, but pays off well according to Vaughn. Indeed, some of the worlds top restaurants work in this way.

Since this is expensive but easy, where comes the hard part? During the talk, I became increasingly aware of Vaughn’s emphasis that really innovative organisations have a tactical rather than strategic approach to their work processes. Tactical manoeuvring means that you as an organization constantly respond to how the world changes – and that means that decision making in the organization must be rapid and not constrained by bureaucratic structures. However, besides an organisational culture that allows this to happen, Vaughn also emphasised that all levels of management must endorse this for innovation to lead to success. This is what the top restaurants of the world have understood and it is reflected in their hiring processes.

I think Vaughn’s observations resonate well with our own experiences with public innovation. Setting up the team, identifying problems and developing insights is not the hard part. The difficulties enter when you need your insights to bloom within organisations, when large organisational change is necessary in order to achieve results, and when innovation carries risks to organisation and managers. This is not to say that it is impossible – indeed a well defined strategy can set a direction that may handle this. Incidentally, here at MindLab we have revised our own strategy to improve and foreground our work with organisational change. These are, however, baby steps in a complex process that requires much thought and skill along the way. We all know the societal challenges ahead, but which public organisation will be the first Noma of government?

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