Six degrees of co-creation

By now, most people are familiar with six degrees of separation, the idea that you are linked to every individual on the planet by a surprisingly small chain of relationships. In an increasingly connected world, it means that information and behaviors can spread quickly via social networks.

You would think this would be especially powerful at work, where a smaller population also shares some sense of identity and values. But the opposite seems to be true. Inside companies, there is typically friction and resistance that limits the number of connections and information flow.

Why? And what can we do about it?

Co-creation

Companies have long recognized this problem, and have exhorted employees to collaborate more and break down silos. But the organization chart naturally creates Us and Them in the company, and all the territorial defensiveness that goes with it. Like Hercule’s Hydra, the oft-lamented silos form and re-form no matter how many attempts are made to reorganize and get rid of them.

“Co-creation" is a fairly recent phenomenon. It purposefully “brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.” As part of the quality movement, for example, manufacturers worked closely with suppliers to identify and fix issues.

Originally, the concept of co-creation was limited to formal arrangements between companies and customers, and later on became common between different companies, divisions, and teams. But it can go far beyond that.

Six degrees of co-creation

Today, co-creation is even easier. Instead of the starting point being an agreement between two organizations, co-creation can begin with contributions from anyone, anywhere, and rely on social networks to deliver relevant information to the people who need it or might find it useful.  

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson described this as the basis for most innovations:

“Innovative environments expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts…If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

Co-creation, writ large, thus requires an increase in both the supply and demand of knowledge. More people need to make their work visible - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re learning - and more people need to be curious enough to search for, use, and build on the work of others. It’s the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Instead, everyone contributes, and innovations emerge from networks that form across traditional boundaries.

Good for your organization. Good for you.

Perhaps it’s easy to see why an organization would want such an environment. It would lead to greater innovation as Johnson describes, to reducing the duplication of effort and errors, and to greater agility and resilience in the face of change. That’s why so many companies are investing in culture change programs, in new social intranets, in events to inspire and encourage employees to work and think differently. Although their progress is slow, they are serious in their attempts to improve how people work together. 

But what’s in it for you as an individual? Why on earth would you share your hard-earned knowledge without knowing what you might get in return?

The answer, in short, is that it makes your world bigger. Each contribution you make is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with possibilities you would never know about otherwise. You are only a few degrees away from other people, knowledge, and resources that can help you realize more of your personal potential. But you’ll only realize that potential if you work in a more open, connected way.

Co-creation needn’t be a formal program, or something that requires permission from the boss. It’s a choice, a way of working you can start practicing today. What are you waiting for?

***

Note: This post is adapted from an article I wrote for a company’s internal employee magazine earlier this year.

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If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

The Trolley Problem.png

The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

The life & death of Quality Circles (and a more modern way to implement them)

By the time I first heard of a Quality Circle, the idea was already almost 30 years old. It’s “a group of workers who do the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems.” I was in my twenties at the time, doing research for my first book, and I believed these Circles could make a huge difference.

The method was introduced in the 1960s by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa. By the late 1970s, more than 10 million Japanese workers were in Circles. More recently, China is reported to have formed over 20 million Circles in a a range of industries.

But in the US, at least, “quality circles are almost universally consigned to the dustbin of management techniques.”

Why? What can we do to make a good idea even better?

Out of the Crisis

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the quality management movement, was one of my early heroes when it came to work. His management philosophy wasn’t just for managers, but for everyone. Remarkably, his 14 principles put people at the center of quality and statistical process control.

“8. Drive out fear. 
12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

When Out of the Crisis was published, Deming was already in his 80s. He referenced Quality Control Circles (or QC-Circles) several times. Though he was familiar with their success in Japan, he had also seen failed implementations in the US, and he was not optimistic about their success there.

“The idea has appeal. The production worker can tell us a lot about what is wrong and how improvements can be made: why not tap into the source of information and help?
[But] a QC-Circle can thrive only if the management will take action on the recommendations of the Circle. Many QC-Circles are, I fear, management’s hope for a lazy way out.”

Do you treat them as human beings? Or not?

Something went wrong. QC Circles were designed to be a way for people to actively take pride in their work by having a voice in making it better. But Circles often became a management tool focused on cutting costs (and jobs), and on finding fault. 

In his book, Deming excerpted a speech from Dr. Akira Ishikawa (who became president of Texas Instruments in Japan) about why Circles worked in Japan but not in the US.

“In the U.S., a QC-Circle is normally organized as a formal staff organization, wheres a QC-Circle in Japan is an informal group of workers. A manager in Japan serves as an advisor or consultant. In the U.S., a manager of production, to get rid of the job, appoints facilitators for Quality of Work Life, Employee Involvement, Employee Participation, QC-Circles, all of which disintegrate. 
The second contrast is the selection of the theme for a meeting and the way in which the meeting is guided. In the U.S., the selection of a theme or project and how to proceed on it are proposed by a manager. In contrast, in Japan, the things are decided by the initiative of the member-workers.
The third feature is the difference in hours for a meeting. A meeting in the U.S. is held within working hours. A meeting in Japan may be held during working hours, during the lunch period, or after working hours.
In the U.S., monetary reward for a suggestion goes to the individual. In Japan, the benefit is distributed to all employees. Recognition of group achievement supersedes monetary benefit to the individual.”

These aren’t just procedural or technical differences. They’re fundamental. The way that Circles are implemented can determine whether or not employees tap into their innate needs for control, competence, and connection. 

“One Japanese plant manager who turned an unproductive U.S. factory into a profitable venture in less than three months told me: ‘It is simple. You treat American workers as human beings with ordinary needs and values. They react like human beings.’
Once the superficial, adversarial relationship between managers and workers is eliminated, they are more likely to pull together during difficult times and to defend their common interest in the firm’s health. Without a cultural revolution in management, quality control circles will not produce the desired effects in America.”

“WOL for Quality”

When Deming observed Quality Circles, it was well before enterprise social networks, before 4 billion people were using the Internet, before modern research on why people do what they do. Today, it’s easier than ever for employees in any environment to make their ideas visible, to tap into what others in the company know, and to connect and collaborate with them. 

One experiment I plan to work on is to apply the basic elements of WOL Circles - a voluntary, self-organized, safe and confidential space using structured guides - to making work better in a wider range of environments. Call it “WOL for Manufacturing” or “WOL for Hospitals” or even “WOL in the Classroom.”

To suit each specific kind of environment, I would adapt the guides to include different ways for Circles to form and interact, different contributions to make, and different technologies for making them. If a company is already spreading WOL Circles, then such an experiment would be a natural extension, a way to include people in non-office environments.

Perhaps, instead of waiting for “the cultural revolution in management” that Deming thought was necessary, we can take action now. Perhaps we finally have the tools and practices we need to create grassroots movements that matter, that can show management what’s possible and inspire them to enable broader institutional changes.

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

 "Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.

The enemy within

It all seemed terribly important at the time. There were factions and disputes, often within the same division or sub-division, at every company I worked in.

When I was in the IT department, for example, the enemy was the infrastructure group. When I was supporting a banking business, the Fixed Income executive threatened to have me fired if I shared anything with the Equities group. Usually, we referred to the enemy by their acronym. I still remember when GIS CM was at odds with GIS CB. 

It’s laughable now, but only from a distance. Up close, the threats - to our group’s status and to my own compensation - seemed very real.  I used to think that internecine warfare was an unavoidable consequence of working inside organizations, or perhaps a problem of how we designed them. Now I see it’s much deeper than that.

When incentives & organization are to blame

A disturbing experiment in 1954 showed how easily people can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other. It was called the Robber’s Cave experiment, and it involved 22 eleven-year-old boys in a three-week summer camp.

“The boys were broken up into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, the boys in each group bonded by hiking, swimming, cooking and eating together. In the second week, the researchers tried to induce conflict between the groups by holding several competitions. The winning group would get a trophy. 
Over the course of the week, the competition became intense. A loss in a game of baseball resulted in name-calling. A loss in a grueling 48-minute tug-of-war led to the “enemy” camp being raided. After the final competition, at the awarding of the trophy, a fistfight broke out and adults had to step in.”

When management is to blame

The famous Milgram experiments in 1961 showed how quickly we cede our empathy and compassion in the face of authority.

“How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board. The actual answer was 600 times that…
‘What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.’”

When we run out of excuses

For sure, the culture of a place can make bad behavior more or less likely, but that doesn’t absolve the individual from the choices they make. Every email, every meeting, and every conversation in the hallway presents a choice. Pay attention to what you and your colleagues say about other people when they're not around. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?

I was as quick as anyone to label someone, to criticize them, to assign them motives and agendas when in truth I had little actual understanding. How could I? I never asked, never wanted to know, and it was simpler that way. How limiting that was. 

Five years ago, before I was thinking about Working Out Loud, I started looking for ways to mitigate bad behavior at work, and I was thinking about how technology would help people relationships. 

“Social tools and practices make it easier than ever to fix this. To connect people across organizations. To build relationships based on more than acronyms. To create purposeful social networks focused on company goals instead of on managers in the hierarchy.”

Since then, I’ve learned technology is only one possible part of the solution. I’ve learned that, although new tools may make it easier to change how people relate to each other, and certain kinds of managers and cultures can help, we don’t have to wait for these things. 

Defeating the enemy within requires that we see each other as human beings connected by common interests, concerns, and struggles. That’s a mindset and a set of skills and habits that anyone can develop. It just takes practice. 

If you want more people to use the intranet at work

For me, it started in 2007. After almost 15 years of working on trading floors, I was close to losing my job and was looking for some other way to add value and stay employed. 

That’s when I started thinking about the intranet.

A list of failed experiments

I was using Gmail and Google Apps at the time, and I thought Why can’t we have something like this at work? So I began researching different options, and that led to the first of many pilots.

2008 - Google at work: We were going to use Gmail and iGoogle (do you remember that?) We conducted a pilot but cancelled it due to inability to pass legal & compliance restrictions.

2009 - Yammer: A business division started to use it first and it began to go viral till Compliance blocked access to it.

2009 - Facebook: We investigated secure integration via software from an Israeli start-up, but never made it to a pilot.

2010 - The Wire: We hosted our own micro-blogging service to avoid compliance issues. There was significant early adoption by IT but it was seen as marginal by most people.

2011 - Jive: We managed to get enough money for 12,000 licenses, and we blew through that within 6 months. Forced to either shut it down or buy more licenses, we secured an enterprise license for several years, giving us time to try and drive adoption.

Do you see a pattern? We were so focused on technology, on trying tool after tool, that we missed the parts about helping people and solving problems.

“This will change everything”

We knew that Jive, a fully-functional enterprise social network, could make a dramatic difference in how people worked. But by 2011, our experiments had taught us that “hoping for viral” wasn’t a good strategy. So our small team launched, evangelized, trained, workshopped, ambassadored, communitied, and tried every other good practice we could find or think of.

It still wasn’t enough. Or rather, change came very slowly. Over the next four years, the number of active users inched upwards, eventually topping 90,000 people, but we faced existential challenges each year: sponsors leaving, budget cuts, re-organizations, IT threatening to change platforms. 

By the time I left the company, most of what we thought of as “the intranet” had moved to the enterprise social network, and more people used it in ways that were open and collaborative. What we were still looking for was how to accelerate these kinds of changes. 

The biggest lesson

In hindsight, the biggest lesson I learned was that while there are many “barriers to adoption” for new technology at work, the biggest one is the set of deeply-ingrained habits people have. Most employees are already busy, distracted, and potentially disengaged. Even if the new intranet is better for them, they won’t pay much attention to it. 

In an article titled, “What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today,” Dion Hinchcliffe (noted author and digital strategist) summed it up nicely:

“ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order” 

He provided a wide range of excellent advice, including how he would help people take advantage of the new tools:

“Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. 
…the push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start.” 

What I would do now

“Onramp” is a good metaphor. People won’t start using new digital tools because of IT training or because someone told them to. But they will use them if, as in a WOL Circle, they feel it’s related to a goal they care about, that it gives them more control over their career and access to opportunities. 

Bosch is one of the leading companies spreading Circles, and Katharina Krentz talked about it this week at a Digital Business conference in Germany, In her talk, “Working Out Loud as a Change Method,” she shared some of their survey results:

88 % say: “I use Bosch Connect more efficiently now”
97 % say: “The program increases digital capabilities and supports cultural change”

Those numbers are far better than anything else I tried when I ran the intranet. To scale these kinds of changes even further, I would integrate Circles into every existing process or program where people benefit from building better relationships at work.

In short, I’d try to help people experience a better way of working wherever they happen to be, and for long enough that “the new way” becomes a new habit.

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

If your innovation program isn’t producing much innovation

Your company almost certainly has an innovation program. They may call it something else, or include it in a culture change or digital transformation effort. But no matter the name, companies are all looking to create a more innovative culture, one where individuals contribute more ideas and, importantly, collaborate to bring those ideas to life.

If you have such a program, it probably isn’t producing the kind of change you want. Why not? Because despite the tools you bought and the events you held and even the exhortations of management, most people simply aren’t sure what to do and how to do it.

Some companies I’m working with are about to try something different.

Is your current innovation program a bad idea?.jpg

Where Good Ideas Come From

Most companies think of their innovation program as a big suggestion box. Sometimes they'll offer a prize in an effort to get more people to deposit their Powerpoint slides into the box, and organize a committee of managers to select the best ones. Unfortunately, this tends to breed competition and hiding of information instead of collaboration, and produces little actual work beyond the slides. Sometimes, companies even set up a special Innovation Group, a creative silo of its own that’s apart from everyday work and forever struggles to be relevant or make an impact.

For a better understanding of how innovation actually happens, Steven Johnson’s oft-cited book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an excellent primer. Analyzing a wide range examples from over centuries, he showed that innovation isn’t the results of a hidden genius and The One Big Idea, but from the exchange and interaction of many ideas.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos,” he wrote. What he meant was that new ideas typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people who recombine and reconfigure them till the result is an innovation of a kind.

Barriers to innovation

We know this is true, and there is example after example after example of people working in an open, connected way. to accelerate the pace of innovation. Yet we rarely see it at work. Why? 

After watching yet another TED talk describing how a group made their work visible, connected with other experts, and went on to create something new, I wrote about the barriers I saw most often in the workplace:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.
"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.
"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

A different approach to innovation

The companies I’m working with now are trying to address these barriers in a novel way. They still have the tools, the events, and the management exhortations. But they are also providing employees with help. 

Together, we’re adapting Working Out Loud Circles to give employees hands-on, practical experience. The peer support groups, using Circle Guides tailored for experimentation, begin with smalls steps such as making an idea visible and searching for individuals and groups related to their idea both inside and outside the company. Over a period of weeks, participants practice outreach and ways to deepen relationships that lead to collaboration while learning how to make more of their thinking, learning, and other work visible in a way that’s useful to others. Throughout the process, managers are paying attention to what’s happening online, providing recognition and support, asking questions, and offering their own contributions

Each individual that participates shapes their reputation while they develop their personal network. As Circles spread, so does a culture of innovation, of “putting more parts on the table” (as Steven Johnson says), and reshaping and recombining them.

Instead of a funnel of ideas leading to a committee, or a beauty contest to see who has the best slides, resources can be allocated based on who has taken an idea, built a tribe around it, prototyped it, and gathered support and evidence.

Innovation isn’t just about an idea or a program, it’s about a practice. 

A better approach to mentoring at work

I had two kinds of mentors when I worked in big organizations. One was assigned to me as part of a mentoring program. He was a direct report of the head of our division, and his secretary would occasionally arrange a lunch appointment for us. Because of his position, I was cautious about what I said to him.

My other mentors weren’t part of any program. They were people I chose, either because they excelled at what they did or because they cared enough about me to listen and provide objective feedback.

Who do you think I learned more from?

Most companies I speak with fully understand the value of good mentoring relationships, yet they’re stuck with traditional programs. Here are two ways they can do better.

Peer mentoring

Part of what makes for a successful mentoring relationship is choice. Preserving both parties’ perception of control will directly increase their motivation. Another part is psychological safety. Even with the presumption of confidentiality, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re talking to someone who's directly responsible for your compensation or promotion (or is closely connected to someone who is).

Peer mentoring can help with these issues, especially if it’s a group of peers, and their aggregated knowledge, networks, and experience can be considerable. A Lean In Circle is a good example of such a group. 

Another example is a Working Out Loud Circle. Instead of offering just general support, each person takes specific steps towards a goal they care about, and develops relationship-building skills as they do. Simple guides for each meeting provide structure, and ensure that each person has both something to gain and something to offer. More than a conversation each week, it's a shared experience, one that individuals can repeat with each new goal they pursue.

Reverse mentors

Reverse mentor programs flip the traditional model, with a (generally) younger person providing some kind of coaching or support to a more senior manager. The programs are opt-in, which preserves autonomy on both sides. The topics are usually centered around things younger people would naturally know more about (technology, perhaps, or “what millenials want”). That preserves psychological safety. 

Such a program can provide a safe place for executives to learn about something new, and for the reverse mentor to become more familiar with what managers do and how they do it. But most programs lack the structure to provide meaningful exchanges or experiences, and waste the opportunity. It can become, like the lunches with my mentor, just a series of periodic chats. Nice, but insubstantial.

To solve that problem, there’s a version of Working Out Loud Guides specifically developed for such a program. (You could also use them with executive assistants acting as reverse mentors.) Each week, the guides specify preparation the reverse mentor does before the meeting. Then they offer the manager simple steps for using digital tools to reach and engage people. Through deliberate practice in each session, the executive learns how to search and listen online, to connect with people, and to reinforce desired behaviors. 

An experiment you can try in your organization

Though simple, these lightweight mentoring programs can solve some longstanding problems. 

Take, for example, the use of digital tools by executives. Organizations spend millions on new tools for communicating and collaborating, and yet most of their executives don’t take advantage of them. When I mentioned that to a group of HR professionals this week, the audience responded with a lot of head nodding and nervous laughter. “We have a lot of work to do,” they said. But they also agreed they could easily find ten managers who would participate in a “Digital Leaders” reverse mentoring program. Those ten managers, working in a more visible way, could then inspire the next twenty, and so on.

Another problem I wrote about recently is the on-boarding of employees. Companies put a lot of effort into orientation events that, over a few intense days, may well inspire people. But what happens after that? Those enthusiastic new joiners are left with little or no support for navigating their new organization. As an experiment, you could pick one orientation group and offer them the chance to form Working Out Loud Circles. Then use feedback from that first wave to validate that they’re indeed more productive and connected more quickly.

You know you can do better than the traditional programs. Take a small step and see for yourself.