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Monday, April 05, 2010

Breaking Down Internal Barriers to Innovation

by Paul Sloane

Breaking Down Internal Barriers to InnovationWithin larger organizations one of the biggest obstacles to innovation is poor internal communication. A silo mentality develops so that departments guard information and ideas rather than share them. People work hard - but in isolated groups. Internal politics can compound the problem with rivalry and turf wars obstructing collaboration. It can reach the ridiculous stage where the enemy is seen as another department inside rather than the competitors outside.

The leader has to tear down the internal fences, punish internal politics and reward cooperation. This sometimes calls for drastic or innovative actions.

Nokia has an informal rule that no one should eat lunch at their desk or go out for lunch. People are encouraged to eat in the subsidized cafeterias and to mix with people from outside their department. They have found that the informal meetings across departments are beneficial in sharing ideas and understanding.

Every organization has to find ways to promote internal communication and collaboration and to fight internal division and competition. Here are some ideas for breaking down barriers to communication:
  • Publish everyone's objectives and activities on the intranet so that people know what other people are working on.
  • Organize cross-functional teams for all sorts of projects. Make them as loose or as formal as you see fit but be sure that there is good mixing and that all of the departments contribute.
  • Arrange plenty of social and extracurricular activities, such as sports, quizzes, book clubs, hobby clubs, special interest groups etc.
  • Have innovation contests where cross-functional teams compete.
  • Have people frequently take secondary assignments in other departments.
  • Deliberately rearrange the office layout from time to time so that people move desks and sit with new groups (or adopt a 'hot desk' approach).
  • Organize a cross-functional innovation incubator.
  • Encourage department managers to look for ideas, input and solutions from outside their departments. Publicly praise managers who do this.

Conclusion

It is natural for departments in organizations to become more insular. As the organization grows, good internal communication becomes more and more difficult. There was a saying in Hewlett Packard: "If only HP knew what HP knows!" Very often the knowledge and skills needed to solve your problem exist elsewhere in the company. Knowledge sharing and collaboration are essential for innovation success. A key responsibility of the innovative leader is to constantly fight the silting up of the internal communications and to force contact and sharing between departments.


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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

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