The skill that every startup needs (but most don’t have)

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you may well be a startup or work with others who qualify for the label. By “startup,” I mean any individual or group that wants to turn an idea into something more than that.

Maybe you work in a big company and want to contribute or develop in some new way. Maybe you’re participating in an innovation program of some kind. Or maybe you're looking to do something on your own.

A skill you’ll need is the ability to build a purposeful network. Here are two reasons why that skill's important, and one way you can get better at it.

Bringing an idea to life

It’s clear that most innovations aren’t the result of lone inventors in garages. They’re the result of connections - between people and ideas - that result in new combinations. Steven Johnson captured this in Where Good Ideas Come From, which surveyed innovations over hundreds of years:

“If you look at history, innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect. Innovative environments… expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts.”

For those of you working in large companies, please note that he didn’t write “Innovation comes from the best Powerpoint slides pitched to judges in the innovation program.” You don’t hide your idea until the day of some competition. Instead, as Eric Ries described so well in Lean Startup, you share your ideas and related work early on; you actively solicit feedback that helps you refine and improve upon it; and then you iterate. Along the way, you build relationships with people that can help you in some way, whether it’s with technology, financing, usability, or anything else you might need.

That’s how you bring your idea to life. It’s only after you have a viable prototype that you may want to approach people for funding, permission, or other resources - if you need it.

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

Building a tribe around an idea

Now imagine your idea has been selected or you’ve somehow brought it to the successful prototype stage. At this point you have a different challenge: getting attention. After all, if not enough people know or care about your work, you won’t be able to reach the audience you want to reach, or make the difference you want to make. 

Today, most successful startups don’t rely on traditional marketing to get attention because it’s too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they try to build communities around their idea.

Using the metaphor from Derek Sivers’ popular TED talk, “How to build a movement” (a great way to spend 3 minutes), modern startups actively look to find “their second and third dancers” - early adopters who embrace the idea - by making their offering visible and accessible. Then they equip, empower, and connect those who care about their work to spread the word for them, all the while getting access to valuable feedback, knowledge, and new opportunities. 

An impassioned tribe, connected to an idea and to each other, has much more power than any lone inventor. 

How to teach yourself & others

Building a purposeful network isn’t just an extra task or a nice thing to have. It’s fundamental to the innovation process. And, importantly, it's a skill anyone can develop.

One way to do it, to learn by actually building relationships that matter, is through a Working Out Loud Circle. If your company is trying to increase innovation, you can integrate WOL Circles into your formal programs or corporate learning academy. If you’re on your own, you can form a Circle yourself to deepen relationships with people related to your idea. (You can find Circle members in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.) 

Anyone can have an idea. It takes a network to bring your idea to life, and bring it to the world.

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.