Moving Towards a Distributed Innovation Model

by Paul Hobcraft

How are we going to really unlock the true potential of frontline managers, middle managers and the whole workforce for ‘seeing’ and engaging for their contribution to innovation?

Far too many organizations still don’t provide the opportunity for everyone to contribute to innovation. I think as open innovation moves from the labs and research centers OI will be one of the ways for a shift in thinking to take place, not just with the outside world but within the inside organization for a number of reasons.

Critical needs of open innovation are the trust, the behaviors and the relationships that need to be at the forefront of thinking when you engage in more opening up to fresh avenues of innovation thinking. I think this changing mindset of how to manage within will permeate throughout the organization more and more as these (often dormant but available) skills get put into practice more. We struggle to get rid of the ‘command and control’ approach to encourage more distributed sharing and exchanges to reflect the need today of being more agile and fluid in how we meet rapidly changing market conditions and counter threats or seize breaking opportunities.

How can we influence leadership in everyday contexts?

As a starting point to distribute innovation we need to reset the innovation mindset. Formally appointed managers will never achieve without gaining the respect of the people around them, which is simply a common fact of life! We still have incredible difficulty learning this in many organizations. It does seem a more distributed leadership structure built on individuals who have strength to influence others is more likely to succeed- the respect of your peers has greater power than impose and control. We often recommend organizations seek out and appoint passionate champions (W L Gore) or ecosystem champions (P&G) to organize and influence innovation work. There is a lot of research work presently going on that is studying the type of behaviors, traits, characteristics needed for these pivotal innovation roles so they can be used for the appropriate need to encourage and ‘push’ existing initiatives or champion new ideas. It can flatten the organization structure.

The flat lattice organization is a start.

W.L Gore practice a distributed leadership model that has a ‘lattice’ structure where they discourage hierarchy, titles and trying to impose and look to encourage the ‘voice’ from within the organisation to self commit and identify in a culture that demands each to offer their unique contribution to delivering innovation. They work on achieving respect throughout the organization based on a fascinating set of disciplines NOT rules and hierarchy. They build into everyone’s job innovation.

Distributed innovation requires a flow of knowledge

Innovation has many definitions but one I might mention here is it is ‘doing new things or improving existing things that add greater value’ is a great place to start for everyone in your organization to actively seek out their potential contributions. If we feel our contribution is valued this becomes a powerful motivator not just to turn up for work, but to engage in new productive work. It becomes a more dynamic environment, not static to work within and just attempt to identify with.

What is changing constantly around us in this distributed innovation need and we need to put a better system in place to capture distributed knowledge. Networks are giving us all that incredible shift to ‘connecting for value’ not just ‘discovery’, we are constantly needing to re-arrange, recombine, react and explore to problem-solve and often improvise on a daily basis.

Recognizing what helps knowledge to flow in a distributed innovation model

  • Recombination’s and connections will help us within a more distributed innovation society to manage.
  • The geography of innovation knows no barriers. If we don’t operate in a more distributed way we are going to miss so many ‘breaking’ concepts that are occurring in innovation on a daily basis. We need to capture these. This requires front line effort and capital but by distributing the task, you have the chance of a greater knowledge flow.
  • How do we cultivate ‘global people’ power? In a world of changing knowledge we need to recognize that educating and informing our people and our network of what we are doing will lead to contribution, to the capture of knowledge and reveal the skills dormant in us all to identify productive knowledge.
  • How can we design for greater learning? How can we turn knowledge into innovation potential?
  • How can we build in greater levels of collaboration and adaptability? These are human dimensions we need to encourage by distributing the tools and clarity of purpose to those within our company to ramp up the innovation pay-offs increasingly expected.
  • Innovation is full of ambiguity, often little clarity so you need to give your organization that greater freedom and permission to investigate, capture and push back knowledge through this distributed innovation network.

Distributed innovation needs to cultivate Absorptive behavior and allow it to flow.

We need a system to capture and allow knowledge to flow. For me the adoption model seems to be one worth investigating. If we want to achieve the goal of distributed innovation we need to have in place this possible framework. Nesta ( produced a report some time back called “innovation by Adoption” and I feel this has a good framework that support distributed innovation. The report argues in a place with a strong absorptive capacity three main outputs subsequently result from the flow of external or distributed knowledge: (1) the creation of new innovation; (2) the creation of new knowledge; and (3) that it does lead to new economic and social value.

Innovation by adapting the adoption model within your distributed innovation needs.

Moving Towards a Distributed Innovation Model

If we agree that most innovations happen outside often self-imposed boundaries then we have to extend to all our boundaries and beyond. We have to open up. We certainly understand that today innovation is not confined with the walls of one particular company. The world ‘absorbs’ more innovation than we can turn into greater value but we need to attempt to capture this and see if and where its value might lie. This is going to be achieved more likely within a distributed approach asking everyone to contribute to innovation ideas and providing them on a consistent basis the likely content and context fit that they need to look for . We need to continue to push innovation created often locally, back up through the organization so it can potentially turn these insights into innovation that will find a place in our world that improved on the existing that was something that we contributed too, that can be highly motivating. For this to happen organization have to recognize the inter-dependency and reliance that a diversified, distributed engaged group of people can bring to accelerate innovation to share, explore and work on turning ideas into new solutions .

What we need to find is ways to absorb this flow of daily knowledge, quickly recognize where it might meet our needs and then fit these to the wider audiences available that search for innovative solutions. There is an awful lot that can derive from a more distributed innovation network that allows a greater flow across a networked organization.

Approaching absorption in two ways

Absorptive capacity captures and enables this flow in each direction. Nesta through its research into this absorptive need also suggested a model called the AC/DC model where they argue you need to develop two broad sets of capacities: the absorptive capacity (AC) to identify, value, and assimilate and the development capacity (DC) of places to develop and exploit such knowledge.

AC/DC Model

Hobcraft - AC/DC Model

We need to adopt a more distributed innovation model in our thinking

Applying these two models into your thinking to achieve a more distributed innovation model would help to capture, anchor and diffuse all the innovation that lies not just within the ‘walls’ of your organization but just beyond where your local people can see it, value it and bring it into the organization as one of their contributions to innovation.

Permit people to ‘see’, to ‘engage’, to become ‘deeply involved’ then organizing around distributed innovation can lead to greater empowerment and sustaining your innovation engine and knowledge. Fortune will favor the connected mind not just the brave lonely few.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

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  1. Some fantastic insights on innovation, Paul. Thanks.

    I’d like to pick up on the leadership side of things, if I may. Firstly, in some recent research, my respondents made it very clear that leadership is closely linked with expertise (knowledge). Simply put, people choose (mostly subconsciously) to follow those who they think will move the team closer to its shared goals. Sometimes this is technical expertise, and sometimes it is process expertise (eg. being good at coordinating or communicating or mediating). We don’t often consciously think about why we choose to follow someone in-the-moment, so having such awareness might help us to make better choices, and even to exercise more leadership ourselves (when we have most expertise in the particular context and ought to step up).

    When people step up and exercise influence, they are exercising leadership, even if that time scale is momentary. Often it’s much longer than that. The sole leader approach is inacapable of accounting for this form of distributed team leadership, since its rather blunt accounting approach separates people into only two categories: “the dominant leader” (one winner!) or “follower” (the rest), even if the latter actually exercised leadership! We all know that leadership in most teams just doesn’t operate like that. Importantly, we also found a third category of team member, the notional member, who is niether leader nor follower, but let’s leave that for another time.

    My study also showed that most people in the team exercised some leadership over time, even if there were those who exercised influence more often than fellow team members. So influence is distributed equitably (everyone is happy with their share) but not equally (some influence more often or more profoundly than others).

    So how does distributed team leadership actually happen? We have identified 8 influencing behaviors associated with distributed team leadership. Firstly, there are the core behaviors of contributing and belonging – teams that don’t have these will wilt and die! Then there are the two key influencing behaviors – coordinating and motivating. If these are scarce, the team is unlikely to achieve its objectives. Finally, because context plays such a vital role, there are four situational influenicng behaviours. Risking, anchoring, channelling and mediating are required only in certain settings. For example, conflict sometimes arose at decision making time, and the team needed the mediating behavior to help maintain harmony. As important, as with all of the influening behaviors, this was often forthcoming from multiple team members, rather than any single individual.

    [As an aside, it was interesting that when teams distributed leadership there was far less conflict than ‘normal'(to the extent that the Storming part of Tuckman’s famous model of team stages seemed to relate more to sole leader teams, that experienced most conflict over who would rule the roost).]

    There’s more about the eight influencing behahviors and distributed team leadership in easy to read one page briefings found in the Resources section of our website. I’d also welcome correspondence about distributed team leadership, which is surely the form of leadership that will support innovation in the connected, distributed knowledge economy of the present and future.

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