Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Our corporate innovation lab did an amazing job recently by showcasing their most advanced organically built ventures. That was a strong demonstration that our model works. For team members like me, part of a 70 people unit, that was one of the rare occasion to get the full picture and have deep dives of what type of ventures we are building.
We have been successful where many innovation labs fail and this is certainly linked to our focus, our well balanced portfolio and also with our way to mitigate silos by creating collaboration, cross-staffing and job rotations.
The common mistake of other innovation lab teams, in particular when they start with a vague mandate, is to multiply activities and create far too many silos as compared to their size. Of course the intention is noble, in particular to achieve a lot and cover a very large spectrum of activities. The counterpart is that when organization grow over 50 employees, it may start leading to many disconnected activities.
Illustration: Hollywood Squares with comedians and celebrities on the show
In general, within an innovation lab you have the projects (ventures) and the programs (support) for sourcing the projects. Those are two main activities with ventures teams and support teams that are quite separated and rarely interacting.
On one side you have the ventures projects: lets say 6 teams of 5 people for venture spread across a portfolio of risk/reward options
On the other side you have the support for the end to end sourcing, maturing and managing of our portfolio of ventures, again here 5 teams of 4 people
Here the perception is that you end up accumulating around 20 separated sub-teams with little interactions among them. This not true in reality but the perception that they have created many silos will persists in many of their company stakeholders' opinion. At least there is a fact we can not deny, the expertise and experience is rarely shared between units. Most of the time, for those 50 employees, interactions take place during informal meetings or along team events. One can say that ventures have synergies between them but this is still pretty limited and mostly among project heads. Most of the time, organizations observe only rare transversal functions to serve multiple projects such as administrative, legal or financial support.
In the organization I belong to, we have been looking at more transversal activities such as having a joint engineering office which is leveraging the existing fablab and its staff. But even in the organization I belong, psychological safety is weaken and it became difficult for employees to give feedback or constructive criticism outside of their sub-activity scope. Luckily, teams are organized in a way they rotate among sub-activities and complement each others depending on which activities take place. With this cross-staffing approach, teams have developed a capacity to work flexibly among their unit activities.
I believe we are close to what Simon Sinek describes with his experience of the Navy Seals where he noticed that high performing organization are mixing of outperformers together with people capable to build trust among each others - i.e. silos breakers. Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP9jpxitfb4
Interestingly, for those other innovation labs, most people from inside don’t get the full picture, while it is quite obvious for anyone coming from the outside that too many things happen. Sometime organizations are performing well and managers don’t want to interfere at risk of loosing its pace. This is often damageable on the long run...
In our organization, we have looked at supporting studies on leadership advocating other way to reduce organisation silos and showing an increase of employees engagement and intrinsic motivation. When I was in charge of managing the change, I proposed to implement the Kotter dual model by creating informal taskforces within the organization.
Illustration: Kotter et al. The Dual System - https://hbr.org/2012/11/accelerate
Such an organization model was first greatly perceived by some of the employees in need to escape their routine. This was also understood by the units managers, accepting, under certain conditions, to experiment on informal taskforces missions and timelines. To facilitate the employees engagement toward transversal activities we have
created a dedicated item in their yearly performance assessment...
Experiment was overall positively perceived but often this holacratic process was conflicting with the managers priorities and therefore it was difficult to get overall buy-in. Another fact that contributed to more complexity is the that we get reorganized every 18months in average... In this context, we have tendency to keep some existing units while adding new one and expecting that organization will reshape by themselves. This entropy logic works but take times, people leaving within a year following the reorg. and thus units scope reshaping to adjust to reduced resources.
We are doing an amazing job in showcasing our innovation ventures and activities and can be proud of many progress and impact they have achieved in only a few years and we have a dual organization to reduce silos and create synergies around informal taskforces.
Many innovation lab focus 'only' on showcasing their projects success and not enough on their organizational structure, enabling collaboration and synergies... this is in general a diversion of something wrong and one of the best signal being key employees leaving the organization being tired of internal struggling they are silently facing, everyone being stuck in their silos and isolated. If you think again about those 20 sub-teams, ... they are like and house of cards.. and we all know what happen when a little brise blow...