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3 ways to promote innovation

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Collaborative innovation requires effective teaming across organisations and sectors, writes Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.

More and more organisations are undertaking innovation projects where people collaborate across multiple organisations, industries, and sectors. But even with the best of intentions, cross-industry innovation projects are more likely to fail than succeed; success hinges on effective teaming across industries. Integrating the perspectives and capabilities of participants in diverse and ‘virtual’ (geographically dispersed) teams is not easy and technical and interpersonal hurdles are equally high. Successful projects share three leadership practices: 

1. Offer a compelling but adaptable vision

In cross-industry teaming, projects are complex and dynamic, and the vision must be expected to evolve. 

Many aspects of the innovation are unclear at the outset. A dynamic vision provides room for participants to help shape it as the work unfolds. For leaders, this means managing tension between clarity of purpose and shifting goals. Be clear about the project’s values while explaining, inviting input into, and celebrating the vision as it shifts.

2. Create psychologically safe spaces for sharing expertise and values

Clashing cultural values undermine crossindustry collaboration. Leaders must help diverse experts share goals, insights and values. Investments in cross-domain learning prevent problems, from small delays to major project failures. Leaders can frame cultural differences as a source of strength. Tensions between fields point to areas for focused innovation efforts, which starts with mutual understanding. 

3. Promote small, experimental action

Because no daring innovation project has a blueprint, leaders must promote small, fast actions to test and develop emerging ideas, that embrace an experimental mindset and method. This puts a premium on collaborative analysis of interim results as work unfolds. 

When uncertainty is high, many, if not most, early experiments will fail, but failures are rich inlessons. They’re also unavoidable in any innovation process – and much more so in cross-industry innovation projects.

Given this, leaders must help people cope with the contradictory demands of envisioning an audacious futurewhile engaging in small, imperfect action in the present. Together, these leadership practices are useful in any kind of innovation project, but in crossindustry settings they’re vital to success and to building the future. 

Amy C. Edmondson

By Amy C. Edmondson

Amy is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School.

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