Innovation Infrastructure: Activities to Support, Part 1

What critical innovation activities must be supported by an innovation infrastructure? Short answer is that innovation infrastructure must keep the project's top goals... top of mind, through.... TOP Management. Whether you're working with a group of enthusiasts or a formal network of company partners, keeping the team moving in the same direction is key. (I'll take on the longer answer in Part 2.) Wednesday I have the privilege of speaking at a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The workshop's goal is to develop projects related to reducing time and cost overruns in large innovation systems (space, aviation, etc.). The audience includes engineers, systems designers, and academics from across engineering, economics, and organization science. My 15 minutes of fame will be focused on the role of innovation infrastructure -- built with technology support and organizational practice -- to help make large efforts feel small. This post is my trial run. I went into the project thinking about how, whether, the needs of community-based innovations were different than those of large formal projects. My conclusion is that even though the community/enthusiast-based projects may be smaller in terms of investment, they are likely to be larger in terms of perspective. This breadth is both a benefit and a burden. Breadth is a benefit in that innovation needs breadth to help us find new ways to put together solutions. Breadth is a burden in that our focus must be narrow to succeed. Informal communities of enthusiasts are likely to have more varied goals and less oversight to keep them on a particular path. NASA's Mark Moore helped me understand the innovation importance of focus on top goals. I had contacted Mark (thanks Bob!) as he was the lead on NASA's Puffin single-person vertical take-off and landing project. The Puffin project is a great innovation example as it moved quickly and so far is tracking on its design goals. Contrast this with the many delays we see in larger space and aviation projects. httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV0qBU_u3tQ Mark's says it is critical to keep the top goals on the table throughout the project. The tension here is that an innovation project is likely to be made up of experts from a variety of different areas. (Recall that breadth is good for innovation... but also recall that breadth means people may bring differing goals to the project.) Each area of engineering wants to do its best, though what the project may need is trade-offs across the best possible outcomes. Mark's phrase: "Every optimal aircraft is filled with non-optimal tradeoffs." Both formal and informal innovation projects need to focus on their top goals:
..don't confuse collaborative innovation with a headless organization. Leadership still plays a critical role in mobilizing and aligning any organization. But the role of the leader is not to create the innovation but to create the environment in which it will thrive (p. 17, The Innovation Zone).
People need to understand the ultimate design goals and how the innovation as a whole must support those goals. How can TOP Management support our ability to keep top goals, top of mind? TOP Management is the intertwining of technology, organizational practice, and people. In the Puffin case there was an understanding of the human desire to optimize around one's area of expertise - and how to manage that tendency via particular practices and simple technologies:
We did not use any advanced collaboration tools, but simply email and WebEx conferencing. The key to our successful collaboration was to keep a small core team that had very clear objectives, with the detailed discipline efforts tied together by a top-down systems analysis understanding of the design problem.
Technology played a supporting role, using tech to support the focus on the top goal. Email served to document decisions and keep track of the trade-offs. (Value of documentation, even in face-to-face meetings.) While the O and the P of TOP management were highlights of Puffin's success, I expect that technology could play a stronger role, especially in larger projects. Project communications and workspaces can be designed to highlight the top goals both formally and informally (for no clear reason I keep thinking of Google's changing logos). Technology could also support the organizational practice of evaluating trade-offs vis a vis the top goals. As ideas role in, the "crowd" can give electronic thumbs up or down similar to the voting possible in some innovation platforms (e.g., Spigit), "liking" on Facebook, or Digg. Puffin was a small project and so I doubt if hardwiring practice would have added much, but for larger projects hardwiring the systems focus on the top goals may be necessary to keep goals from diffusing as you move away from top leadership. Key to innovation infrastructure is the development, focus, and support of overarching system goals. "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" (John F. Kennedy). This was a clear goal statement and ran counter to what many of his advisers thought was prudent (audio track from a meeting where the issues are debated). Many of the advisers wanted to take a building block approach. They wanted to know more about things like the the surface of the moon (would the lander sink) and the implications of weightlessness. Kennedy, however, had a better understanding of political and human needs. You need a clear goal and a clear metric of success. We went to the moon, on time.

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