All charged up

Innovation requires widespread energy. Jane C. Linder, Rob Cross, and Andrew Parker studied more than 50 innovative organisations to ...

Innovation requires widespread energy. Jane C. Linder, Rob Cross, and Andrew Parker studied more than 50 innovative organisations to find the best ways to keep the enthusiasm and passion flowing.
All charged upSome organisations are able to generate successful product and process innovations over and over again. An important part of their success, of course, stems from the superior management processes and organisational structures they use to bring new ideas to market. But an equally critical, and often overlooked, success factor distinguishes innovative organisations: energy.

No innovation succeeds without the presence of organisational energy. But managing energy isn’t as simple as plugging talent into a socket and turning on the juice. As the head of R&D at a consumer products organisation explained to us, “Nothing innovative happens without someone getting fired up about an idea and then getting others enthused about and supportive of the plan. No matter how good or technically right the idea might be, if you can’t generate energy for it, nothing of substance is going to happen.”

Yet, while executives recognise energy as intricately intertwined with innovation, they also struggle with how best to drive passion and enthusiasm into their organisations. One solution is to focus a network lens on the daily interactions throughout an organisation that either energise or drain employees.

Managing energy involves shaping a complex dynamic with its own internal feedback loops. Most innovative projects not only consume employee energy, they also generate it. Attempts to control energy can backfire – witness the kick-off meeting that leaves employees feeling sceptical and deflated rather than committed. To make it even more challenging, energy has to be “kicked up” and “drained off” at different points during a project.

Put in these terms, managing energy can sound impossible. But that’s not the case. Earlier research has demonstrated that energy can be assessed through an organisational network lens: people energise and “de-energise” their colleagues, teams and organisations by the way they interact. People are much more likely to seek out information and to learn from energisers than from de-energisers – and all phases of an innovation require new information, perspectives or expertise in order to proceed successfully.

While these earlier findings showed executives how to identify energisers and de-energisers, they didn’t provide specific insights into managing energy to stimulate learning and innovation. We sought to fill that gap by conducting network research with 15 organisations and 76 interviews – 26 with people considered “high energisers” by their peers, and 50 with executives directly involved with innovation.

Managing energy in four key stages of innovation

Each part of the innovation process calls for a different style of energy management. For example, a manager who demands action steps and deadlines during a brainstorming meeting will strangle creativity immediately, while a pause for a blue-sky session in the middle of an aggressive rollout will also kill momentum. Leaders have to understand how and when to tap different energising mechanisms.

Although innovative initiatives often move in a non-linear path, most include four very different types of activities: ideation, selection, development and commercialisation.

Ideation: Protect the hunters. In the ideation stage, employees are framing possibilities; in most successful cases, they are doing this with people who have expertise different from their own. At this stage, innovations are especially fragile; deenergising behaviours easily stamp them out. People need some latitude and encouragement from management in order to pursue budding ideas in an easy, low-risk manner.

Effective managers clear away obstacles to exploration by erecting protective umbrellas over their idea hunters. One chief technology officer directs his people to go “hunting in pairs.” He sends an engineer and a marketer into the field to “live” with customers and customers’ customers for six months. In his experience, it takes this marriage of perspective and this length of time to see what is missing rather than what is there.

The transition from generating ideas to selecting from them involves more than just chunking out and submitting proposals to the capital committee. In many ways, it’s a matter of timing. Innovators test the waters to understand whether their organisation and their customers are open to the new idea. Ideas whose time has come will garner enough energy and momentum to carry them through the challenges they will face.

Selection: Be positive. Innovation’s aim is to drive profitable growth, not to maximise energy. Nevertheless, it is possible – and necessary – to choose ideas to pursue in ways that do not kill organisational energy. While the energy dynamic in the ideation process requires openness, diversity and creativity, the selection process rests on transparency and fairness. Its aim is less to build momentum than to avoid destroying it.

Most companies have a stage-gate or prioritisation process to assess proposals and choose among them. In the typical company, the few whose ideas are funded are tremendously energised, while the many whose projects are given no resources feel discouraged. Consequently, it is critical to maintain energy through the selection process.

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