Innovation and the Cross-Pollination of Ideas

Recently, I had an exciting opportunity to lead two panel discussions on innovation and leadership at a corporate R&D event where research partners from several prominent engineering schools were invited to share new developments. R&D engineers and faculty members discussed the challenges of creating an environment where innovation emerges and flourishes within their organization.

The event itself was an excellent example of one of the pillars of successful innovation efforts – the cross-fertilization of ideas. When people operating in different worlds - academic, corporate, government, different cultures, different countries, different business functions, come together, a synergy is created that rapidly leads to new ideas and new perspectives on current problems.

While the science was well beyond me, I asked participants if they were learning from the specific work of researchers working on completely different physical materials – plastics, ceramics, polymers, etc. The answer was always “yes” and the questions coming from the diverse audience were clearly bringing new insights and ways of seeing a problem to the presenters. It sometimes even produced an “aha” moment opening the possibility to break away from a current stumbling block.

The panels brought attention to the challenge of integrating an “innovation mindset” in mature organizations. As Maxwell Wessel points out in an HBR Blog Network piece on innovation, mature organizations prosper when they do what they are designed to do – focus on operational efficiency and the relentless pursuit of incremental profit. Strong leadership is needed to manage the tension between creativity and daily business requirements, since both are essential to success.

So how do mature organizations create an environment for breakthrough innovations? Companies with lots of resources and markets as strengths often acquire startups that bring new innovative ideas, speed, and flexibility to the table. Or they encourage employees to set aside time on a regular basis to work on creative ideas or in projects that don’t have to follow the same business-as-usual constraints. Engineering schools recognize that excellent students today are coming with new product ideas in-hand and/or a real desire to make a difference in addressing global challenges like energy, water, biomedical, and climate change. Some schools are providing students with new spaces to tinker with their own ideas, creating in-house business incubators, or setting up student innovation competitions to address real-world problems or opportunities.

The need for engineers and engineering students to develop their non-technical skills arose from the leadership discussion. When it comes to selling new ideas to management or funding partners, it is the “soft skills” and ability to develop relationships that will lead to success and the innovations that get to the marketplace. Team building skills are critical since innovations most often come from small groups of people building on the ideas, experiences, and strengths of others.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama said “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.” Organizations that build on cross-fertilization of ideas, create new spaces for tinkering, and encourage well-rounded employees with strong technical and non-technical skills will surely lead the way.

Joe Blotnick, President, Team New England Associates