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Mobilizing Innovation Resources Out of Thin Air

Innovation practitioners know that one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest, with innovation in companies, is getting the people (and the corresponding time required) to work on the innovation. Innovation’s longer-term payout almost assures that resources will be allocated first to shorter-term problems. I don’t have the solution for resources, but I do have one idea that leaders in the innovation age should consider in a resource-starved climate. What if you could create resources out of thin air, much as the moisture farmers in Star Wars™ did to harvest water from the atmosphere of arid planets, such as Tatooine?

Looking for Answers in the Innovation Universe

To address this aspect of resource availability, let’s look within the Innovation Universe. The Innovation Universe has four interconnected platforms required to turn legacy companies into innovation powerhouses:

  • FRAME: Setting the Stage. FRAME is the linkage of innovation with your company’s strategic architecture.

  • GENERATE: Customer-Driven Problem-Solving. GENERATE represents the art + science involved in creating innovations, from concept to commercialization.

  • EMBED: Organization Transformation. EMBED re-engineers the company’s culture, systems, and standards to enable innovation to thrive.

  • LEAD: Unleashing Human Potential. LEAD represents the new leadership skills required in the innovation age to guide your company through GENERATE, FRAME, and EMBED.

We will be looking at the last one, LEAD, and the new skills and point-of-views required for leaders to succeed in the innovation era.

Out With the Old; In With the “Yes, And”

If you think about the old notions of hierarchy (of control) and the management principles that surrounded hierarchy, it is a great contrast to how innovation works today. In the day, your supervisor assigned your goals in an M.B.O. (Management by Objectives) world that you were held accountable to deliver in a budgeting period, usually annually. To resource these goals, you were allocated FTEs (Note: is there anyone in the world who would be proud to be known to all as a Full-Time Equivalent?), and a budget commensurate with your objectives, but a bit resource-starved to make you work harder. The accountable managers above you tightly controlled this process.

In the B.I. era, Before Innovation, you lived and died by the goals allocated to you and how you and your team performed against the pre-set goals. The rules of the workplace were so tied to the hierarchy that you would not permit another manager, no matter how critical their project, to co-op anyone on your team for other projects without “going through” you first. Moreover, they were often suspect you even saw them talking to someone on your team. For decades, this is how it worked within most companies. “Assets” were allocated from the top to managers who were held accountable to discharge said assets (people and dollars) against annual objectives. In many places, it still works this way.

By the time innovation washes over the workplace, the A.I. era in which we are living, (After Innovation, circa the mid-90s but picking up steam in the mid-2000s) said resource allocation practices becomes management best practices (read: orthodoxies). Innovation changes things; it forces more open markets for talent and resources, and it is harder to create innovations using the B.I. resource allocation approach. Many companies are stuck in the middle, adhering to the orthodoxies of resource allocation yet wanting innovation from everyone and everywhere. In the allocation world, resources are not fluid. They cannot easily flow to the most innovative spaces. You, as the innovation leaders, have a hard time freeing up people (and funds) to work on innovation projects when resources have been allocated and locked-in given the B.I. rules. We know the answer is not to completely unravel the resource allocation systems, rather the answer lies in a “yes, and” world. As an innovation leader, your “yes, and” is creating skills to within the old systems and finding new ways to create and attract resources. One possibility: mobilize Creative Affinity Groups (CAGs).

Creative Affinity Groups (CAGs)

In my book Unleashing Innovation, I display a 2007 social network map from Whirlpool Corporation of all the post-launch teams in one region. The analysis was completed as pre-work to a leadership development program. The program was developed for senior leaders that to teach innovation and six sigma as a problem-solving methodology for non-product problems, in this case, post-launch teams. Before the session we asked each team a series of networking questions: who they worked with, how strong were these relationships, whom they shared “innovation ideas” with, etc. From that data, our experts generated a social network map. Below is the picture that emerged.

Used by Permission, Whirlpool Corporation. 2009

It does not take long to gather what is happening in this group. Each team reported into the organization into a different product commercialization department, yet when you recast the so if you were looking at the organization chart you would not pick up on this nuance. When you look at the network and how they interact, they do not collaborate. Because of the leader development program the picture changed, the islands became connected to form what is now a different picture; a core business expertise that is world-class in post-launch methods.

The story could end there, however it had a profound effect on me. I started looking at organizations very differently. Instead of organization charts or project team charters, I started looking for invisible patterns of interaction that, with a little bit of hosting, could create significantly different outcomes. I started looking for Creative Affinity Groups (CAGs); self-selected, member-led communities of Whirlpool people offering a personally meaning platform for creative expression, learning and lifelong connections. I wrote about one example of this, the formation of the Whirlpool Creatives, in my post LEAD: Unleashing Human Potential in the Innovation Era.

CAGs are affinity groups that attract employees. The company lightly supports/hosts them. They are member-led and voluntary and self-regulating. Members have total control of their time and how they unleash and grow their passion; they vote with their feet. When they take off, they add a dimension to your company that is indescribable and hard to quantify. They are a resource attractor, unite people together in pockets of creativity, and attract talent to your company. They tap into personal discretionary time and energy, owned and control by the individual, not the company. CAGs are a way to unleash human potential, uniting like-minded people for personal development. They are unlike most company-sponsored initiatives: no clear company mandate, create their own agenda and live or die by member passion. They are not controlled; rather they are unleashed. They are not “controlled,” CAGs and their members have a personal freedom of choice. They are a new way of thinking about talent and resources, unleashing rather than allocating. The support required from your company is minimal. It entails a platform so that members can find each other to interact, share and advance learning, require a small amount of funding to get started, occasionally require some light guidance in the form of air cover when needed, and lite-facilitation to help them meet their goals.

Inn-Visible: From Stars to Constellations

When you look up at the stars, you see a field of lights that have little to no structure. If, however, you understand astronomy or use a celestial catalog, you see something entirely different. You can see constellations such as Orion. Some see stars; others see constellations.

Innovation leaders learn to see things that others cannot. The social network map is a constellation, it shows relationships. They do this through “people” insights: Interacting through eye-level dialogue with people who work at the company. They get to know the person, not the role they perform. With some practice, innovation leaders discern CAGs who are not yet formed but might benefit from a hosted format. It’s a bit like throwing a great party; create a theme, send out invitations, create a platform (social gathering, venue, food, make introductions, talk and share, suggest reasons to stay in touch, set up next party date, repeat) and the people who are interested show-up. The people who get the most out of your parties will continue to attend, and bring other like-minded party goers.

Innovation Leaders also are genuine about the CAGs; they are for people to find other like-minded people. If the company benefits, that is a secondary outcome, but the first outcome is to unleash passion in people who work together and may share connections beyond their job descriptions. CAGs are voluntary; there is no pressure to join. People can join at scaled rates—a little or a lot-- and stay in the CAG as long as they get something out of it. CAGs are self-managed; the vision, principles, degree of structure and events are created by the members. They may need some funding to get started, not much a few thousand dollars until they become self-funding.

Innovation leaders know if they throw a creative notion out into the world, it will come back into them ways they never imagined. One way CAGs might come back is an affinity group that can be invited to innovation events to spur new thinking, expert thinking or new communities of interaction. Another way CAGs might come back is in their invariable outreach to the local or virtual communities, expanding their membership beyond the reach of your company for common good. You never know, it’s a bit of an experiment, but well worth the upside potential. The feeling is a bit like the feeling that Francis Ford Coppola describes in the quote below. The secret is that you must harness the fear of the unknown outcome, have a pure intention and then, as he states, turn 180 degrees, don’t look for a secure solution and turn on the passion, full-force. CAGs might be one of the secrets to creating resources out of thin air; seeing what others cannot see. Host a great party. In the context of your career with your company and starting something new, it’s scary stuff, but a great tutorial for how to lead in the A.I. world. When I am starting to take a scary step, I often think of the quote below from Francis Ford Coppola. Don’t look for a secure solution, don’t pull back. Turn on your passion, full-force and unleash human potential.


In the middle of filming Apocalypse Now, Marty Sheen had a heart attack. For the first time during the making of that picture, I became scared. But we improvised: We used a double and shot a lot of the material from behind…

To keep going in a crisis, do a 180-degree turn. Turn the situation halfway around. Don’t look for a secure solution. Don’t pull back from the passion. Turn it on full-force.

-Francis Ford Coppola, Fast Company


New Leadership Skills in the Innovation Universe

If you wanted to try to start a CAG at your company how might you do it?

  1. Using your network of innovation leads in the company, start exchanging ideas about pockets of creative or like-minded people.

  2. Collect a few examples of groups that might form: musicians, poets, geeks, sailing enthusiasts, photographers, finance private-equity buffs, dancers, artists, scrap bookers, or animal activists.

  3. Invite a few of them in and test your idea: is there a “there, there.”

  4. Determine what support they many need: a platform to self-identify and find others, a blog or virtual posting format, a website to host their creations, a few hundred dollars to host their first social event, etc.

  5. If one or two people are interested, ask them to start meeting on what their CAG might look like, offer to join them to lite-facilitate. Encourage them to start with a social event and let them know that all great things start small.

  6. Determine if they need a lite-facilitator, if so help them find one or identify a group of people who can be trained to do so.

  7. Find a way to check in with them to help understand their progress and their barriers.

  8. Share best practices between CAGs

  9. Unleash it. “keep going. Don’t look for a secure solution. Don’t pull back from the passion. Turn it on full-force.”

  10. Take pictures along the way; you will thank me later.

CAGs and Innovation

Once you get a few Cags going, you will see connections between their goals and innovation. Some examples that I have seen: inviting their members to i-labs; inviting members to join innovation teams in specific periods to add a new perspective and spark creativity, as content experts, ask them to join the insight-discovery process or to teach your innovation team certain skills, bring them in when you are considering creating a new workspace, introduce them to like-minded NGOs who are struggling in your local community (youth development, symphonies, art programs for at-risk youth, reading programs, creative writing, horseback riding for young adults with activity limitation, etc).

Over to You

I know it sounds a bit scary, but most innovations are. It may sound a bit harebrained to some of you. I get it. I hope I have challenged you to think about new ways to create resources. I also hope that this post inspires you to look for constellations where others see stars. When you look at the people in your company through a new lens, you will see that many of them have amazing creativity that they often cannot bring to work. If you can host a platform for CAGs to unleash and advance their talents, it’s is good for them, but it is also good for you company. And it is great for innovation.

Dr. Nancy Tennant for the Innovation Universe: FRAME. GENERATE. EMBED. LEAD.

©2017 Nancy Tennant. All Rights Reserved.

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