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Why is connecting with other industries so important for innovation?


How would you define the word “company”? An entity that sells a product or a service? A place where people go to work to do a job and earn a wage?

A company is really nothing more than a collection of people all working collaboratively towards a single vision or idea. And the most innovative companies? Those are the ones that really embrace collaboration. The Apples and the Disneys and the Amazons of the world exist at the top because of their ability to not only hire teams of great people, but to create a culture where these individuals collaborate, developing ideas greater than the sum of their parts.

Innovation cannot thrive in isolation. An innovative idea kept in isolation is like a fire kept in a room without oxygen; it will extinguish itself almost immediately. That is why great companies of the world create space for their teams to collaborate and grow their innovative ideas. Give them space to let their fires burn.

But what about beyond the company walls? We spend so much time thinking about collaboration within our organisations that we sometimes forget about the power of collaboration when we extend beyond our own teams.

The World Bank published a really interesting study in 2015 that sets out a framework for boosting innovation ecosystems in cities. Two of the critical factors that they found strongly correlated with the maturity of innovation ecosystems were:

  • Increases in “Collisionable Activities”
  • Connectivity between Industries

The concept of “Collisionable Activities” is a delightfully simple idea that many of us take for granted. In essence it is the cumulative impact of the opportunities people have to bump into one another and share ideas. Some opportunities are obvious, like how many networking events happen in the area.

But others are more basic, like how often do people walk from place to place? These factors combine to create a certain number of “collisionable hours” in the day; moments that are ripe for collaborations, bringing new ideas to life through the combination of perspectives.

One of the greatest champions of Collisionable Activities was the late, great Steve Jobs. In fact, he believed so much in the power of these unplanned interactions that while serving as CEO of Pixar, he redesigned their entire corporate campus to encourage employees to take walks, bump into someone they did not know, and create and share new ideas.

You only have to take one look at Apple’s new spaceship-like Apple Park HQ in California to see how they continue to design their working environment to enable chance encounters. Jobs knew these collisions would ultimately lead to great leaps in creativity and innovation.

Connectivity between industries being a factor in innovation might not surprise you, but the strength of that relationship will. Being highly connected with other groups was one of the highest predictors of start-up success, particularly in the early years. In the chart below, the further to the right you go towards a closed network, the more you’ll hear the same ideas, which helps to clarify what you already know and the further left you go towards an open network, the more you’ll hear new ideas.

Innovation ecosystems are particularly helped by “Key Connectors”, like educational institutions and start-up communities who form dense clusters of high connectivity that significantly boost the success of the group as a whole.

For that reason, Disrupt London and Pearson College London have partnered to help their students develop the knowledge, intellectual capacity and professional experience they need for their long term careers. Many of Pearson’s students are highly entrepreneurial and are juggling their studies alongside managing their own start-up.

It is for this reason that we are giving students the opportunity to participate in an Innovation Masterclass hosted by myself and Disrupt London to enable them to connect and innovate with people from a wide range of organisations.

Pearson College London place significant focus on forging great relationships with the business community, forming powerful clusters of industries. An excellent example of this can be seen in the 2015 Mapping London’s Science and Technology Sectors report which shows that the fundamental strengths of the tech and science ecosystem in London derive from processes of clustering and agglomeration working in concert. The key takeaway from the report is how a handful of “Key Connectors” can bring the whole group together.

This is possible because communities of people are the drivers of innovation. We often idolise certain individuals as being particularly ‘innovative’ or ‘creative’, but the truth is that the true skill of these people is often fanning the flames of creativity in others. They are enablers!  I witnessed this on a daily basis during my 30+ years working for The Walt Disney Company, particularly during the latter part of my time there when I was Head of Innovation and Creativity. It was my job to figure out how to drive innovation at scale in every department, from marketing, to operations, to finance. 

This is what led me to develop the “Innovation Toolkit” – a series of practical tools and activities that helps shape team conversations and enable big ideas to overcome the many barriers that face any innovation. The Innovation Toolkit shows individuals how to harness a team’s collective ideas, and in the process, achieve remarkable things.

A great example of the power these tools can have whilst embracing cross-industry collaboration is a marketing campaign that I worked on at Disney to promote the launch of a new Toy Story ride at Disney World. There are many unsurprising things we could have done to get the word out, but that would have been bland and boring; two words that you’ll never hear at Disney. Instead we chose to pursue an idea that would have been immediately shut down in many businesses: send Buzz Lightyear to space

(Very) long story short, what began as a crazy idea in a brainstorming session, rapidly grew into one of Disney’s most ambitious marketing campaigns of all time.

We partnered up with NASA to take a Buzz Lightyear toy for a 15-month mission to the International Space Station, with the vision of inspiring the next generation of kids to get interested in space travel (see for yourself). But we could not have pulled this off alone. This seed of an idea led to us connecting and collaborating with an industry very different from our own, and the result was spectacular!

The key lesson here is that as individuals, teams and organisations, the more we do to connect with (and embrace) a wider range of perspectives, the more likely your company is to survive. Innovation is no longer optional, it’s necessary for survival, and you can increase innovation in your organisation by looking beyond your four walls.

Written by:
Beth Baker, Head of Student Talent Development at Pearson College London, the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.
Duncan Wardle, Innovation Speaker and  former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney.

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