This is Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. It is the birthplace of most of the technology that led to the smartphone you have in your pocket.
It was here that the leap from glass tubes to transistors was made in the late 1940s, paving the way for a chain of technological breakthroughs including lasers, solar energy, microchips, mobile phones and mobile networks.
So what was it about Bell Labs that bred so many innovations?
At Bell Labs, the man responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr Kelly rose from being a researcher to becoming Chairman of the Board. He believed that the space in which innovation took place was critical. He housed his “thinkers” and “doers” under one roof, and when he designed this laboratory, he assigned corridors to professionals in mixed disciplines.
Mr Kelly designed corridors that were so long you couldn’t see to the end, and narrow enough that colleagues were often bumping shoulders. Colleagues were encouraged to talk about their projects, to share their ideas and problems. It was a structure that encouraged collaboration and conversation. And from that flowed some of the most important innovations of modern times.
But often, when we think about innovation today, our minds are immediately drawn to certain images.
The eureka moment. The flash of inspiration. The stroke of genius. But these images give us the impression that innovation comes from a single, solitary moment of inspiration.
Innovation often involves much more. We take ideas from other organisations, inspiration from people we’ve learned from, we add some thoughts of our own, we discuss it and shape it and consider it from different angles, ultimately creating something new, and something that fits the purpose.
The role of collaboration
Collaboration plays an essential role in the generation of ideas. The potential for innovation is everywhere in your organisation – within the living, breathing network of colleagues, contractors, patients, relatives… listening and talking with people at all levels from all backgrounds. Collective intelligence is about understanding that every point of view adds something important to the process of change, even if that something is “how not to do it”.
And this is ultimately the difference between top down innovation, which relies on inspiring leaders and their big eureka moments and unwavering vision (think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk) – and bottom up innovation, in which a culture is built that fosters creativity from everybody within the workforce.
Google’s now infamous “20% time” policy encourages collaboration, allowing employees to dedicate 20% of their working hours to projects and innovations they think will most benefit Google. It was through this scheme that a little team of software developers and engineers started kicking around some ideas that they’d each worked on previously and managed to put their shared learnings together to create Gmail. But it took them three years. And the developer had been working on the idea 10 years before that.
The challenge for leaders is how to create a space for ideas to occur and be refined, and also be willing to recognise both the short and long-term value in those ideas.
And this is where the concept of continuous improvement can be so powerful. One of the core principles contributing to the success of Toyota is “Kaizen”: a philosophy that empowers everyone in their workforce to identify areas of improvement and suggest practical solutions, and defines the role of management as supporting and encouraging the continual implementation of small adjustments which improve and refine processes. Toyota became the world’s biggest automaker in 2008 and its success has been widely attributed to this way of working.
Building innovative organisations
So, if we want to harness the collective intelligence within our organisations:
- We have to make space for collaboration. Ideas happen at the table, when everyone is sharing their findings, their mistakes, their frustrations, their learnings.
- We have to find ways of listening to people at all levels, regardless of role or background. Different people bring with them different ingredients; every new ingredient could lead to a new creation.
- And we have to recognise the long-term value, finding ways to start small and continue to make adjustments over time to improve and refine.
Innovation already exists in your organisations. Your colleagues have already come up with hundreds of micro-improvements which make their jobs a little bit easier, or a little bit quicker, or a little bit more effective. But without a way of communicating those more widely, without a way of sharing those ideas, with the ideas of others, they may never get to reach their potential.
The technology that we have available to us today; the Internet, social media, smartphones, makes collaboration more possible than ever, building networks quickly and with very little expense. People are more connected today than ever before, and the advancements in science, medicine and technology reflect this. The more we talk, the more we connect, the better our ideas will be, and the faster we will see improvements occur.
In a clinical setting this means that listening to the ideas your frontline colleagues are already having, and helping them to refine and implement their innovations, will lead to cost reductions, increased morale, and improved patient safety.
There are plenty of ways in which you can cultivate collaborative, innovative environments without additional costs.
Top tips for fostering innovation
Here are just a few ideas:
- Suggestion boxes: for colleagues to give their feedback and suggestions for improvements.
- Kanban: a method to manage and improve work across human systems; Kanban boards are a tool to visually communicate the status and progress of ideas, and any issues that have arisen.
- Innovation hub meetings: create a space for collaboration, for people to bring their problems and their solutions to the table, refining them together and hearing the perspectives of their colleagues.
- Hackathons: run campaigns to get people collaborating on solutions to a particular issue.
- Rewards and recognition: acknowledging the great work and recognising great ideas will make more people want to be involved in the innovation process.
Finally, remember – it is okay to get it wrong. Failure is inevitable when you are fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation. Getting it wrong just means you are one step closer to getting it right!