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Innovation: A Single Moment of Music in an Orchestra of Noise

Two months ago, I attended the NY Philharmonic and the performance opened with the US debut of a contemporary piece called Gondwana.  The work’s opening is made up of dissonant chords that are constantly morphing; it reaches points of harmony and then it ‘degrades’ slowly into noisy structures. The piece was so noisy at some points that I heard comments at the end of the concert like, “Contemporary classical music? OK, we get it!” As it turns out, the piece is part of the spectral music category, and it has as much to do with music as it has to do with mathematics, politics, and in my opinion, innovation.

The CEO is Talking About Innovation—Again

It is no secret that in the world of business, innovation is one of the keys to success. In a McKinsey study, 70% of  senior executives surveyed believe that innovation will be at least  one of the top three drivers of growth for their organizations in the next three to five years. However, it is far easier to talk about innovation than to foster it and make it a reality in an organization.

Regardless of an organization’s innovational culture (or lack of it), innovational breakthroughs are bound to happen. Even at an organization where every player plays a different instrument in a different key and at a different tempo, there is going to be a moment where dissonance turns into harmony, much like in Gondwana. However, will this organization with a dissonant structure live long enough to see this moment when it occurs?

The answer is: Probably not. That is why it is the responsibility of the organization looking to foster innovation to ensure that these moments of harmony are more frequent and to prepare a plan and structure for when these moments arise. In order for an organization to be successful at harnessing and churning out innovation it must first prepare to spot, capture, showcase and champion it.

Spotting  Innovation

The organization needs to create a work environment where these rare moments of innovation can easily be identified when they arise. In order to do this, the organization needs the right intellectual human capital, capable of recognizing opportunities, and it needs to communicate to its employees that it is open to listening.

Capturing Innovation

The organization needs then to be able to capture the idea in order to implement it. Ideas are conceived of and captured by employees. In order to capture an idea, you need to have an environment where the idea will flourish.  An organization should have in place a workflow where any employee has access to the decision-makers at the company in order to introduce these moments of harmony.

Showcasing Innovation

The environment has to be conducive to sharing. I have a Business School colleague who was responsible for the very successful “Keep the Change®" program from Bank of America. However, when he identified a great opportunity, he approached his manager. Unfortunately, his manager turned down his idea immediately and did not allow him to present it to other decision makers. If my colleague hadn’t risked his job by approaching higher-up executives directly, innovation would have been prevented by a manager, and the very successful banking marketing program would never have occurred.

Championing Innovation

Decision makers should always encourage employees who introduce novel ideas. The decision makers should champion these ideas throughout the organization while always ensuring that the employees are kept up-to-date on the progress of the idea, whether it ends up being an organizational hit or a miss.

How to Get More Frequent Moments of Harmony?

The frequency of moments of harmony in organizations is completely correlated with their environment and culture. In order to harness views on what makes these moments of harmony more frequent, I reached out to two great individuals that live and breathe innovation.  I asked the question to Jensen Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia graphics, named 2007 Company of the Year by Forbes. (The only graphic company taking on the titan Intel and winning the battle in the area of video graphics.)

In Jensen’s opinion, the most important factor is

“an environment that is tolerant of failure, yet is ego-free so to course correct if needed; and is intellectually honest and so able to capture lessons from failure to apply to future endeavors.”

I also reached out to my friend, Dimitri Negroponte of Applied Minds, a company sitting at the forefront of innovation, providing ideas and developing projects for clients like the Department of Defense and Northrop Grumman. Dimitri shared with me than when working in his field of pure innovation, to have a successful innovation environment is to not only see your group as your family, but to accept the responsibilities that come with that. That is,

"when things go wrong, you are all there for each other.”

Who knew that the recipe for more moments of harmony is tolerance for the moments of dissonance?

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