“If I hadn’t bumped into Nick out of the blue that day, if he hadn’t been curious and taken interest, my project would have been just another project. Instead, it became a huge win…Literally, this fix saved us thousands of dollars every time we ran a similar process – when we scaled it, the savings were dramatic.”
One of the most important insights that Cross and Garau uncovered in their recently published study is this: strong personal networks play a key role in the success of the highest performers across organizations because they produce innovative solutions and ideas.
Now, you may have noticed that I phrased the above sentence in a very particular way. I could have said that “networks help produce innovative solutions and ideas”…but instead, I intentionally aimed to emphasize that it is these high performers’ networks themselves that generated the innovative ideas.
Networks don’t just support innovation…networks are usually the source of innovation.
When faced with major organizational challenges, such as cost reduction, leaders need innovative solutions. The traditional approach that comes to mind when we think about innovation is that a leader brainstorms and comes up with a brilliant solution to the problem, then implements it and the rest of the organization follows suit. Well, we may just be dead wrong in assuming, and perhaps expecting, that this is how innovation happens.
Surprisingly, the high performers that were interviewed in this study tapped into their broad and diverse network early on to help them clarify the problem and explore solutions.
They didn’t feel the need to perfect their ideas before exposing it to others – they began engaging the network around them even when their idea was just partially developed. They sought out people outside of their immediate circle, such as those in other roles in the company, or even customers themselves, rather than relying on an inner circle or their own expertise. They didn’t get locked into an idea or plan too soon, and maintained a sense of openness to new ideas and strategies, making changes and evolving the innovation through their network. As a result of these decisions, they were less likely to miss information or to leave out important expertise or insights.
Fascinatingly, the researchers also found that random, serendipitous encounters were the key to successful innovation in every one of the interviews that they conducted. Random interactions tend to lead to opportunities way more often than we remember. The most successful performers in these organizations recognized this truth, and in turn, manufactured these random encounters. Whether it’s intentionally taking the long walk through the office to the parking lot, or intentionally sitting at a table with strangers at a conference, high performers make it a point to build and expand their network. It’s why we intentionally put participants in random teams during our team building programs, and encourage them to work with those that they’re not familiar with.
In general, when reflecting on how they succeeded in developing an innovative solution, the high performers often remembered the success through the lens of their own actions and choices. When the researchers pushed them to dig deeper, though, they realized the truth that networks were crucial and foundational in all phases of successful innovation.
One of the biggest challenges as leaders and high achievers, then, may be the ability to put aside our ego to realize that we usually don’t hold all of the answers. It seems that the sooner we’re able to realize that, and be alright with depending on and trusting the network around us, the more we’ll be able to perform and lead our organizations towards innovation.
To learn more about Summit’s great network building and team building program click here.