As innovation moves from optional to essential, organizations are seeking to structure environments where employees generate new ideas by virtue of interacting across boundaries. For consumers, this innovation has become so normal, so expected, that people have started taking much of it for granted.
For employers, it’s a different matter. They can’t afford to take innovation for granted, to simply “consume” it. They have to generate innovation if they want to get ahead of competitors rather than be overtaken by them. They can’t just watch and wonder where people get new ideas; they must understand how to do it for themselves, to find a magic formula that enables them and their employees to pluck brilliant new ideas as if out of thin air.
Of course, no self-respecting organization thinks in terms of “magic”. They want logical, tried-and-tested processes that appear in publications such as Harvard Business Review, are taught in innovation management courses and use innovation tools. Still, despite the faith that organizations put in systems and processes, they have a lingering belief in a missing ingredient: the spark of creative genius. It might not be the genius of an individual but rather the unpredictable magic that happens when the right ingredients come together. And the formula involves permutations of “cross”: cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary and the boss of them all, cross-pollination.
THE MAGIC OF CROSS-POLLINATION
When people work in silos, things tend to stagnate. Working with the same people sharing the same assumptions develops groupthink. Everybody is concerned with getting along with one another, so new ideas and people who think differently are resisted as potentially disruptive.
Just as case histories and personal experience confirm the downsides of working in silos, so does the image of cross-pollination intuitively evoke the creation of beautiful flowers and delicious fruits and vegetables. The promise in businesses is that great ideas and innovative solutions emerge when people with different skills and backgrounds interact.
To reduce the risks of silo working, employers need to ensure that workplaces and work processes are structured to encourage employees to interact with a wide range of people: those from other disciplines within the organization, those at other levels in the group and those from outside.
It’s not enough for employers to create conditions for random interactions and just hope that they spark innovation. They must foster the mindset and skills that make fruitful cross-pollination more likely: curiosity for unfamiliar ideas from other people, listening skills to hear them out, lateral thinking to play with them and the belief that anybody can be an agent of innovation.