Spreading Ideas Through Organizations

By Dr. Wanda Wallace


What makes an idea move forward in an organization? Is it because it is profitable, easily implementable or impactful? Who is at the center of moving ideas through an organization? How do you create a culture of innovation?

In a recent interview with Bill Fischer from IMD Business School in Switzerland, Bill shared his perspective from years of studying how organizations work: “Organizations hire really great people and then turn them into average performers.”


Obviously, no one hires with that intention. In reality, organizations are not being designed to move ideas forward; rather, they are being designed to generate efficiency. If you ask people who actually has “Innovation” in their job description, very few people will raise their hands. Innovation shouldn’t be associated with one group; it should be for everyone.


"Think of innovation as a verb, not a noun.”


What is the secret to innovating?

There are four core ideas.

  1. Introduce variety of thought and allow debate and tension to emerge; that is, allow variations and collisions.

  2. The people who spread ideas through organizations are the people with broad interests, diverse networks and can build on the depth of experts; that is, “T” shaped people.

  3. Develop leadership that can experiment, take small chances and refine the best ideas.

  4. Avoid the lull of success.

Variants and Collisions.

We reduce variants to manage risk out of the equation and produce efficiency. This is necessary and appropriate for stable businesses, but these methodologies of the past won’t work for the future where disruptors are the norm.


Instead, we need to build teams that are more willing to be contentious, as the future is unknown. When you ask individuals for ideas, you get few truly exciting ideas.

However, when you ask a group, rather than individuals, the ideas are much more powerful. Bill says, “Dramatically different ideas come out of collisions.” The secret to building an innovative culture is to introduce variants and let ideas collide within the team.


One solution: Invite younger people into the room when talking about strategy. This will add diversity of thought to the conversation.

We don’t know who our rivals will be, so we need to experiment. The top-performing leaders in an innovative culture are always the ones that deal well with contention and conflict.


“T” shaped and “I” shaped.

Ideas do not move straight through an organization – they move more like a pinball. Two types of people are needed to move ideas, according to Bill, “I” shaped people and “T” shaped people. The “I’s” are not as curious, they create narrow, deep insights into the world. They are the experts. The “T’s” are much broader, they have wider interests and perspectives, they are curious.


To move ideas effectively, you need these to collide. “I’s” have ideas but struggle to implement them widely, “T’s” have the ability to connect them to a wider audience. Only a handful of people are at the nodes of the conversational networks and have the opportunity to carry the ideas forward. These people tend to be “T” shaped.


Organizations may need more “I’s” than “T’s”, but both are required to give perspective and broaden thinking. Neither type is better or worse. “I’s” are more easily rewarded, because their output is more measurable. “T’s” are often considered too curious and are often less recognized in the workplace. Engineering companies for example can be great at engineering, but they can’t drive their business forward and create presence as they have too many “I” shaped people.


Leadership Practices.

Leaders need to authorize people to take small chances. This will put your organization on a pathway to the future, rather than remaining in the present. A great leader will be able to experiment and recognize when these experiments are or aren’t working, and cull them where necessary.

This behavior inspires the team and builds an eco-system of diverse thought. By experimenting, you can allow the future to be managed separately to the present, as there are fundamental differences between the two. By adopting more teamwork, people starting the idea can also deliver it. They can then take ownership and they have a stake in the future. Experiments are just the beginning.


Innovation should become the informer of leadership skills. Leaders need to have the customer journey as their primary objective. According to Bill, it is easy to lose sight of the customer experience because the customer can move faster than organizations can respond. Secondary to that, leaders need to be experimental, and generous in terms of opportunity, recognition and reward.


Avoiding the lull of success. There are downfalls to everything. With innovation, the downfall is success. When we have success, we feel the need to protect something. The way you protect is by increasing efficiency and reducing the variants, which then kills the innovation that started the success.

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