Thursday, August 10, 2006

Neworks for Sustainable Innovation

With some of my clients, it has been challenging to articulate the value of creating networks that do not have a predictable relationship to revenue generation. Businesses generally want a timeline for ROI and a business case mapped out from the start.

However, if thinking is associative, and a business plan uses only known quantities, then the results are unlikely to be surprising. Only by introducing something less predictable, along with the risk that it brings, can innovators maximize their ability to see things new.

And Then I Met June Holley . . .

At an Uplift Academy meeting this week, I met June Holley of Network Weavers. She clearly articulated how to build social/political/business networks and also how to map them. The software is in beta. However, I found even more useful the explicit articulation of the ways in which sustainable innovation depends on strong networks and the ways in which they can be built.

How This Is Usually Done

Most people would have a hard time disagreeing to the premise that successful business is all about relationships. Sure, there are business development departments (read: sales), non-profit development people (read: fundraising), and high-level executives who play golf, tennis, or dine with other high-level executives (read: closed system).

A Better Way

June suggests the important of something bigger: someone in charge of expanding a central network for the general good of the organization in all areas. This role she calls a Network Guardian. The overall network can be broken down into smaller networks as needed and organized or developed by other network guardians, depending on the size and needs within the organization.

These networks are built thoughtfully but without the expectation that each relationship will yield direct financial returns. Instead, volume within the network makes room for experimentation. In turn, there is room for both the inevitable failure that comes with risk as there is for greater success than if the experiments had never happened.

Where Does Innovation Come In?

As discussed before in more detail, the more resources to which you have access, the more likely there is to be innovation.

Also as discussed in depth in earlier posts, developing one's own (and employees') resources to the fullest extent is the first step to sustainable innovation. Then, the more new perspectives and process that can be considered in relation to one's own, the more likely it is to find effective solutions to challenges faced by your organization.

Of course, sometimes these solutions are only new to you. A process that is old hat to one group can take on new possibilities when introduced to a new context. After all, what one culture, industry, or discipline takes for granted might be an innovation in your business that makes the difference between success and failure.
There's also the value of collaboration.

A group of heads together -- if they're good heads -- often is more effective than the sum of its parts. Again, people from surprising combinations of disciplines or job descriptions can produce equally surprising (and effective) results.

And So?

My experience building networks for non-profits and for-profits alike has consistently proved to expand brand and leverage resources. However, there are not a lot of organizations that use network guardians such as myself with all the company's functions in mind.

The value of relationship development without the promise of direct revenue generation is too often overlooked. Instead of seeing in these networks something you can't measure, consider them directly related to essential R&D.

Think big. Think long term. Think networks that can be applied to every group in your firm (including those that serve internal purposes only).

With an effective guardian, your networks could become a source of sustainable surprise. What could be better for innovation than that?

For more on June's work and the process in particular, please see Nancy White's post and the next post here.

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