What shape should innovation be?

In a perfect world, organisations would be flat, agile and powered by talented, self-organising teams. Perfection being elusive, business leaders continue to struggle with what an innovative organisation might look like and how to get there. For starters, it must be top-down as well as bottom-up, advises talent management firm, DDI, based on recent research into sustainable innovation culture. “Organisations must concentrate on the ways in which each level is uniquely endowed to drive innovation,” its researchers say. “Senior leaders are stewards of the culture. Mid-level leaders translate strategy into tactics. Frontline leaders are closest to the business, and will likely hear about trends first.” One of the more popular conceptual models has been around for millennia: the pyramid. For innovative author and consultant, Steven Shapiro, it makes sense, yet many leaders don’t get it. “Most companies start their innovation efforts by creating a new corporate function charged with delivering innovation,” Shapiro says in Best Practices are Stupid. “In most cases, this is a complete waste of time and money (because it) keeps innovation separate from the business, and there is no investment by the people who make the important decisions.” He cites the example of USAA, a large financial services firm, which developed an innovation pyramid encompassing everyone from the leadership team at the top through to the core innovation team and an ambassador network of champions and advisers to work with the bulk of the organisation. As a rule of thumb, Shapiro suggests one ambassador per 150 employees, or one per cent of the organisation. “At USAA this approach has worked incredibly well,” he says. No surprise, he adds. “The Egyptian pyramids worked so well because the majority of the weight was closer to the ground, making these structures more stable”.

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