How Leaders Can Accelerate Innovation Through Networks Outside Their Industry

To come up with new ideas and ways of doing things, it isn’t often conversations with our own close workplace colleagues that push our thinking the furthest. Those we already share a lot with can tell us what we want to hear. That’s why, when we want to promote greater creativity and innovation, it’s more likely we will gain divergent thinking when we stretch outside our usual groups to our larger networks and the people we see irregularly.

For years I’ve invited the leaders that I coach to immunize themselves to disruption by making connections outside their natural business, field and professional boundaries. Many resisted. It isn’t that they didn’t think it was a good idea, but as the rate of change accelerated, reaching out fell to the bottom of their list. They didn’t consider it a priority. Since then, more of the executives I coach have come to recognize the benefits of spending time away from the pressures of operational tasks to meet with people outside their day-to-day work to get an infusion of fresh ideas. They seek out people outside the networks they meet with regularly to get work done in favour of building a strategic network with people they don’t often see. Meeting with contacts they see irregularly offers benefits such as hearing how others are meeting their business challenges, gaining insights about the marketplace and having useful exchanges that help them to recognize trends.

Surprising for some, what is going on outside your industry can spark fresh ideas for your own. “Going outside” also reduces groupthink and can lead to greater diversity of thought, a far better situation than the impulse for conformity that can push away new ideas.

Many industries are facing disruption and/or want to disrupt the marketplace, and so, they are keen to engage in exchanges that explore the peripheral edges of things not directly in their line of sight. Motivated to think more laterally and broadly about problems and solutions, they aspire to become more innovative and competitive. For some, thinking differently is an urgent need.

A place to look for creativity is to identify the sources of your creative interactions.

Some people have the right temperament and personality to help us get unstuck and go further to think differently. Seek out those who are up to something you find interesting at their company, have a strong track record for idea generation or who you expect could be an honest and stimulating sounding board for you. If you are underutilizing these rich connections, make time to meet with them. If you aren’t yet satisfied with the quality of sources for new ideas, introduce yourself to new people.

How to get the most from people you barely know.

I was asked for advice about how to get the most out of these meetings with a person you barely know. The right approach is essential so that the time you spend is worthwhile. It’s about training yourself to listen in a certain way. We don’t always like feedback that doesn’t agree with our views. What’s more, when we share what we’re working on with others we don’t already work closely with, we often drop them from our social network and move on to form new connections with those we hope are more “agreeable.” This cheeky behaviour is suitably called “shopping for confirmation,” and it’s one of the threats to listening for diverse thought. It’s something to be aware of and guard against.

Be receptive to the distinct — and different — approaches of others.

More recently, I was asked by an executive client who returned from her coffee meetings with a few individuals she met at a conference outside her industry what she could do to make her encounters more beneficial. She wasn’t yet successful at retrieving what she set out to achieve from her exchanges. As we talked it through, we saw together that she was inadvertently not giving others’ opinions their due. While she thought she was helping herself by offering more and more context, she was, in fact, shutting down new ideas.

When we layer details of the historical context on top of more details, we are in effect limiting the other person from any hope of helping us. We’re telegraphing that nothing will work or that it’s complicated. Instead, be receptive to their distinct approach and build on what you hear as a spark for a new idea of your own. Resist vocalizing your objections, react less and listen more.

Bringing a mixed group together for a greater diversity of perspectives and expertise is also useful. In Steven Johnson’s terrific and evergreen TED Talks, “Where good ideas come from,” he introduced the concept of the “liquid network,” where different ideas emerge when people of different backgrounds and interests come together casually to bounce off each other, often over coffee or drinks. You’ve likely experienced the stitching together of ideas to create something new in this type of environment. Nevertheless, we all have participated in well-intentioned groups that fell short of stimulating exchanges leading somewhere.

Cultivating the right climate with a good flow of information and productive interactions is more likely to happen with an expert facilitator/leader there to provide guidance. A talented convenor can create a climate where members of a mixed group feel that all their ideas are encouraged so that people offer their best. That’s what we do in Give & Get, a facilitated problem-solving group activity where the special sauce is an authentically diverse group of participants.

Making a practice of bringing people together from various functions or across geographies or industries or program cohorts is just the first step. Paying careful attention to how you model and enable the behaviours you want to promote, such as focused listening, generosity and reciprocity, are the next ones.

version of this post first appeared on Photo credit: Thank you to Castaneda

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