While technology giants such as Alphabet Inc., Apple Inc., and Facebook Inc. are lionized for their innovative cultures, other industries struggle with hierarchal organizations that make consistent organic innovation very difficult. Companies try to address this by formalizing innovation processes. However, such programs, when they succeed, often produce only a portion of the growth that most large organizations require. Many innovation programs fail to meet expectations, in part because they separate the innovation process from the informal networks needed to adapt and support an innovation.
The authors argue that executives need to better support emergent innovation to supplement planned new product or service development activities. Successful service, product, or process innovations within large, complex organizations are, the authors contend, very much a social phenomenon. This is why organizations that are routinely innovative are intentional about enabling individuals to engage and connect in ways that trigger and expand ideas.
How can organizations best connect employees in ways that more systematically unleash emergent innovation? The authors’ research suggests that part of the answer lies in the power of network structures and the ability of organizations to create what the authors call adaptive space. They define adaptive space as the network and organizational context that allows people, ideas, information, and resources to flow across the organization and spur successful emergent innovation. Adaptive space works by enabling ideas generated in entrepreneurial pockets of an organization to flow into the operational system to generate innovations that lead to growth.
Adaptive space within organizations is fluid and can shift based on need. Companies create adaptive space through environments that open up information flows and enrich idea discovery, development, and amplification. That can be done in a number of ways. For example, the nonprofit research corporation Noblis created adaptive space through an internal crowdsourcing initiative, while General Motors has generated adaptive space through events that bring together people from different parts of the organization.
Using network analysis and data collected from more than 400 interviews, the authors found that innovation leaders within an organization engaged with experts, influencers, and decision-makers through different phases of an innovation’s journey, and in the process managed to substantially expand the impact of their innovation and streamline its acceptance as it moved from concept to implementation. The authors also describe three roles critical for emergent innovation: brokers (who create bridges between different groups), central connectors (who have extensive connections in one cohesive subgroup), and energizers (who generate enthusiasm for new ideas).