I recently returned from the BoardSource Leadership Forum in San Francisco. BoardSource President and CEO Linda Crompton opened the convening. One of her comments was that innovation is not necessarily an event or a singular killer idea. It tends to be emergent – the result of group interaction.
I was not home more than a day before my business partner, Gail Meltzer, send me a YouTube video featuring Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From. In it, Johnson suggests that true innovation comes from a series of “slow hunches” that build on one another and require time to truly incubate. Most often, he says, it is the collision of idea from others that makes the hunch lurking at the back of one person’s mind actually develop into something worthwhile. He states, therefore, that we must find spaces that will allow people with different ideas to come together and bounce those ideas off one another. He offers the analogy of the coffee houses and salons of the early 20th Century that resulted in such great art and literature.
If Crompton and Johnson are correct, then the leadership of organizations that focus internally – that is, determining how they can become better funded, attract the strongest board or gain a reputation as the ‘premier organization’ in their field – are actually working counter-productively to that end. Their organizations will never be recognized as exceptional if they don’t innovate. And, as long as they choose to avoid the interactions with the larger environment that lead to the cross-fertilization of ideas, they are doomed to merely doing more of the ‘same old, same old.’
In my mind this means that leaders must create opportunities to meet frequently with their counterparts in a wide variety of organizational entities to dialog about and to piggy-back off of ideas. The entities they choose to meet with must not only be those that are doing similar work, or that share similar visions for the future, but organizational entities that bring very different viewpoints to the table.
Obviously, this requires a certain level of trust. Therefore, the convening groups will want some rules of engagement. The guidelines for brainstorming are appropriate here – e.g., to generate as many ideas as possible, to avoid judgment, to allow time for clarification, etc. The most important guideline, however, is adopting an attitude that, once thrown out, an idea belongs to the group as a whole. Any modifications of that idea are for the benefit of the community as a whole.
Just think what we could accomplish in our communities if we all took this approach!