Understanding how innovation and collaboration happen in organizations

I am attending the Gateway to Innovation conference today in St. Louis, put on by a variety of local IT-oriented organizations and sponsored by some of the larger IT shops like Scottrade. The opening speech was by Mark Showers, the former CIO of Monsanto, and Peter Gray, a professor at the University of Virginia. They talked about understanding the structure of your internal personnel networks, and how information flows both inside and among workgroups. They survey people within particular organizations and match what data they collect with the formal org charts and team reporting relationships that are supposed to be there.

In one oil exploration company, they investigated why one drilling team was much more efficient than their peers and found that one guy way down the food chain was the glue that held things together. He worked closely with all the different stakeholders and pushed for better collaboration between departments, something that the company eventually implemented with the other teams to improve their productivity. Part of the problem they found was the overall boss wasn’t trying to connect the teams and didn’t really communicate with anyone outside of his direct reports, who primarily communicated just with the boss and not each other. They also found that if companies invest in improving the connections and collaboration abilities of their less effective employees, and just bringing them up to average can have big impacts on overall productivity.

Questions that were going through my mind during his talk:
• How dong does it take your boss to respond to your email asking for help?
• When you need to schedule a meeting with the boss, does it take longer than 24 hours to get on their calendar? The teams that are better at collaborating cut down these latencies.
• How many direct reports are there to the boss, and do they talk to each other or just to the boss?
• Are you empowered to make your own decisions? The less often that you have to escalate things up the management food chain, the better.
• How many outward-focusing projects (standards committees, community orgs, etc) are you involved in where people can get to know you and add to your network? These are the key people to watch because they spread their knowledge and influence outside the organization.

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