Fish out of water

Fish out of water - image for article by Greg Alder

According to some insiders, one of Bill Gates’s favourite ways to encourage innovation at Microsoft was job swapping. He’d move an employee into a totally different part of the organisation for a while just to see what happened.

What he hoped was that this cross-pollination would produce original and unexpected ideas. Mostly it did.

What Bill Gates discovered is that putting people with quite different skills together can dramatically increase the number and quality of innovations.

Because the outsiders aren’t trained in the area they now find themselves in, they will ask naïve questions that the experts won’t. They will challenge the way things have always been done. They will bring knowledge and ideas from one field and see ways to reapply them in this new environment.

A few years ago when one of the big accounting practices determined to prioritise innovation, they hired someone from outside accountancy, someone with a background in creative thinking and innovation.

The guy they hired is as free as they are disciplined. In an organisation in which time is micromanaged, he comes across as disorganised and spontaneous.

He had dressed casually in his previous job. His new employers didn’t ask him to conform to the office’s conservative dress code.

He has specific projects to work on, but he also has the freedom to dive into any part of the business. His brief is to find better, disruptive ways to do things anywhere in the company.

Also interesting is that whilst innovation is a global priority for this company, this innovation champion wasn’t hired to work in their head office. He is employed in a regional office. From there his ideas are exported throughout the company’s world.

So what are the lessons?

  1. Hire an external innovation expert to lead your innovation program and teach creative thinking to your established teams. In a typical professional office, no current staff member has spare time for new projects such as innovation – no matter how important.
  2. Mix skills and knowledge on a regular basis – in brainstorming sessions, naturally, but also in day-to-day work. This is where the big ideas are.
  3. Encourage nonconformity and chaos. Carlson School of Management research found that a disorderly room inspires more creative solutions than a tidy room does.
  4. Lead your innovation push from wherever the passion is. We live in a connected world. Head office centricity is irrelevant.

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