It Takes All Kinds to Innovate: Creating a Cross-Disciplinary Space Where Creativity Can Thrive

One of the big differences between your company’s execution engine and its innovating engine is in the way people, resources, and activities are organized in the two engines.

In the execution engine, where value is created for existing customers through products and services, clearly defined processes are of critical importance. Everyone needs to know the steps by which products and services are created, including exactly who does what at each stage of the process.

For this reason, your execution engine is likely to include departments and teams with specific jobs to do—sales, marketing, manufacturing, quality control, fulfillment, customer service, and so on. Each department is more or less strictly siloed from the others, and each has its own clearly defined procedures, goals, and controlling hierarchy. The result: Maximum consistency, accuracy, and efficiency; minimum variation, error, and waste.

The innovating engine works very differently. Here, the goal is creativity, fresh thinking, and unexpected insights. Rather than following a pre-defined routine as accurately as possible, team members need to break away from routine thinking to imagine new ways of creating value for customers—products, services, and processes that no one has ever seen before but that people will love as soon as they appear.

One key ingredient in fueling your innovating engine is the breaking down of silos by bringing together people from many departments to work together, learn from one another, and challenge one another’s assumptions. Freed from the constraints that govern their everyday work, people gathered in multidisciplinary teams and given the opportunity to tackle open-ended, loosely defined challenges are often able to generate fresh ideas with the potential to create huge new forms of value for the organization and for those it serves.

In particular, it’s important to close the gap that exists in most organizations between those who work directly with customers and know their needs, problems, and preferences—sales people, customer service representatives, and the like—and others who are further removed from the customers. This gap is a fundamental cause of most companies’ failure to serve customers as effectively as possible.

To address this problem, great innovating businesses recognize the importance of creating an interdisciplinary space in which people from across the organization—as well as from outside its boundaries—can work together on creative ideas. In some companies, this space is a physical one—a workshop, lab, skunkworks, or garage where people can spend time together exploring ideas, experimenting, tinkering, and stretching their imaginations. In other cases—especially in today’s digital, global world—it’s a virtual space where people from far-flung locations can gather to swap concepts and play together creatively.

No two companies will design their interdisciplinary innovating space in quite the same way. But here are a few examples of how some great innovating companies have done it:

  • Ecocem, an Irish company that is a pioneer in the development of eco-friendly technology for manufacturing cement, has transformed its selling process into an interdisciplinary activity that involves both traditional salespeople and engineers and scientists from its innovating team. Ecocem’s customers love the opportunity to meet and learn from the experts who know more about cement technology than almost any salesperson, and the company’s innovative capabilities are enhanced by the opportunity for scientists to learn directly from customers about their most pressing needs.
  • W.L. Gore, the fabric technology company most famous for its Gore-Tex all-weather fabric, has an 11,000-square-foot Innovation Center in Silicon Valley, where Gore team members from many disciplines work with one another and with outside experts and customers to develop and test new product ideas. It’s also the site for periodic “hackathons” and “make-a-thons” in which people from inside and outside Gore are invited to play around with new ways of using the company’s materials.
  • Samsung has a collection of innovation hubs in locations around the world where teams of workers from many disciplines gather for weeks-long residencies to tackle specific innovation challenges. They study customer research data, examine competing products, brainstorm new ideas, and experiment with prototypes until they’ve come up with an innovative design with the potential to outperform anything on the market.

Has your company created an innovation space where people from many disciplines can rub elbows and generate sparks of creativity? If not, now is the time to begin building such a space, whether it’s made from bricks and mortar or bits and bytes.


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