Managing Space to Foster Networks

by John Steen

Managing Space to Foster NetworksOne of the long-term themes running through the blog is how to encourage people to be more innovative. This a really tough question because the foundation of innovation is what people believe, say and do. In other words, becoming innovative is about changing the culture of the organization and this is always a long haul.

I remember talking to someone more than two years ago at the beginning of his innovation project. Back then, as we talked, his timeframe for completion seemed to be months rather than years. Occasionally we talk on the phone about progress. Like the war, it’s not going to be over by this Christmas, or the next, or even the one after that. Some parts of the organization are really moving ahead, others are still trying to work out what innovation is.

Some organizations have the additional challenge of working with really smart and individualistic people. They will happily pursue their own projects but getting them to share and collaborate is a challenge. Think of organizations dominated by scientists or engineers. Academics are the same, too. I once was told that the best definition of a university was a group of people, united only by a common parking problem. So how do we foster collaboration and innovation in this environment?

A while back, Tim wrote a really nice post based on a conversation we had with one of our network research partners. He had the challenge of working in a firm with a lot of very smart but individualistic people but he resisted the idea that encouraging collaboration was like ‘herding cats’. Instead, he talked about creating a garden for herding butterflies. The quote that we got from the manager is worth repeating here.

“A lot of people say that knowledge management is like herding cats, but I say that it’s really like herding butterflies. You can’t make butterflies go anywhere – if you want them around you have to create a garden that attracts them.”

To create that garden, we can think about job design, supporting processes that encourage the generation and execution of ideas, and ways to get those innovations to spread through the business. However, I recently been thinking about the physical ‘landscape’ for innovation.

Last month I ran an introductory strategy course for medical students as part of the UQ Medical School’s medical leadership initiative. As part of the course we worked on a strategy for a new medical business within one of Brisbane’s largest private hospitals. On the final day, the medical director gave comments on the presentations from the students and it wasn’t until then that I realized what was at the core of this business.

Jim is an outstanding manager and very experienced medical director. The medical consultants who work within the hospital are essentially sole traders and Jim can’t force them to do anything through coercion. However, Jim also knows that the performance of the hospital depends upon the ability of the consultants to know who else is in the hospital and what sort of expertise they have. Finding the right medical expertise at the right time is very important for getting the best outcomes for patients. Jim says that he spends a lot of time talking to people and finding out how he can help them to do their job better but another thing that he does is to consider the hospital ‘space’.

It seems obvious, but Jim thinks a lot about where to put buildings and important services. For example, the case-study my medical students were looking at was a new piece of equipment to treat cancer. By placing it in a very visible and ‘high-traffic’ part of the hospital, it becomes a place where a variety of cancer consultants will meet with the operators and each other. To extend the butterfly metaphor, it’s a well-positioned flower bed to encourage collaboration.

Tim and I have a few flower beds like this in the business school. There is a coffee service on the balcony and a lot of chance collaboration happens in the mail room too. What ‘gardening’ in your organization could you do to improve collaboration?

Don’t miss an article (1,800+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Continuous Innovation group!


John SteenJohn Steen is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.