Innovation Communities: Turn the hierarchy upside down!


It should come as no surprise that employee loyalty has been deteriorating over the past few years given companies’ responses to the economic downturn. Ongoing layoffs, pay freezes and limited development opportunities have compounded employee disengagement. Meanwhile, firms are desperate to reenergise, reengage and motivate staff. In this blog I explain how to foster ‘communities’ at work to build engagement with your employees, whilst aligning them with your strategic goals and fostering a culture of innovation.

Crowd-source ideas from your employees 

The way we design and organise our companies by specialised roles, distinct titles, functions and layers of management is very effective for delivering consistency, quality, precision with good process and governance. However, it is not a very good system for co-ordination, idea generation, problem solving, motivation, communication or innovation. Most organisations struggle with silos and have developed matrix structures to try and overcome these limitations but often end up becoming gridlocked.

A ‘community’ on the other hand is a group of people that share a passion, skill or interest. Most organisations will have numerous informal communities based on interests, social events, faith, etc. People get a tremendous sense of belonging, support and energy from their communities both within and outside of work.

“In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness”. – Wikipedia.

However, very few companies use communities formally as part of their organisational design. There is a tremendous power in communities to bring employees together, to draw out skills, to generate ideas and to solve problems. A small group of leading edge companies are experimenting with communities as cross-functional think tanks, bringing employees together to work on strategic problems motivated by their own passions and skills, creating natural centres of innovation.

Where good ideas come from

Research suggests that best ideas emerge over time and spend most of their time percolating as partial ideas and hunches. The catalyst to developing them into fully formed commercial ideas is to have your hunches collide with others. Ideally you want lots of different people with different partly formed ideas of their own to collide with frequently.

It’s no surprise that a lot of innovative companies think about the design of their physical space carefully given that tea and coffee rooms, libraries, book clubs and pubs have been big idea labs through history. These days social media brings diverse minds together to collaborate, share ideas and find new solutions. In my experience organisations need both physical communities and online virtual communities.

Diversity beyond box ticking & quotas

Many companies fail to meet their potential or capture opportunities because of a failure of imagination. Developing scenarios for the future, thinking about what might happen, developing multiple futures are important methods for being prepared for change within and without. To do this effectively we need different brains with different approaches and experiences. Each of us is limited by our own mental models that need to be questioned in order to help us see things differently.

To change mindsets we need visibility of our expectations, we need to stir our underlying assumptions of what is/is not acceptable to us. We need to be challenged. Whenever you find yourself or those around you lacking perspective or unable to appreciate alternative approaches, ask yourself:
– What assumptions and truths underly your idea of best/ideal?
– What can it not be and not do? What is ruled out?
– What ‘good’ is there in what you have rejected/dismissed?

By surrounding ourselves with diverse people in a culture that encourages debate and questioning we become open-minded, extend our imagination, generate new ideas and gain humility.

Removing the stigma from failure

“If we are too scared to make mistakes we will never learn anything new.”

Leaders need to encourage managers and employees to dare, to try and to take risks knowing that if they get it wrong they will not be hanged. In these difficult economic times when the world is in desparate need for new ideas, new products and new businesses, employees are most fearful of losing their jobs which inevitably crushes risk-appetite, innovation and creativity.

Leaders have to show vulnerability and create an environment that doesn’t look down on failure. Ideally, leaders should show they can make mistakes too and emphasise what they have learnt from failures rather than presenting themselves as infallible. Leaders need to define a safe space where employees can make mistakes and reflect on lessons learned. Communities at work can offer such safe spaces where employees freely explore new ideas without the fear of failure or judgement.

The reason that so many organisations fail to create a sustainable innovation culture is:

  1. Innovation does not have top table sponsorship
  2. Innovation is often everyone’s concern and no-ones responsibility
  3. Ideas from senior people always get more representation

The role of ‘ Innovation Communities’ in Business

The best people to generate new ideas are those that are frustrated, that want to agitate for change and struggle with bureaucracy. Communities offer flexible structures where different people come together regularly to share and debate topics of passion.

Leading organisations regularly harvest the best ideas once or twice a year into a different mode for testing, delivery and implementation. Communities allow companies to draw upon different people, with different skills and different ideas for lots of different strategic problems, selecting only the best ideas to get budget, authority and focus for implementation each year.

Companies that are experienced in creating innovation communities know that creativity comes in seasons. There’s a time to harvest your ideas and there’s a time to let the field sit fallow.

Foster innovation communities in your company if you want to:

  • bring people across the business together
  • achieve something significant that cannot be done incrementally within business units
  • engage and motivate employees at all levels within the company
  • tap into client and employee insights
  • help people to do the best work of their careers
Further reading:
1. Upside Down and Inside Out: Reinventing Management for a Networked World by Gary Hamel, Founder M. Lab, Consultant and Management Educator, Author – Future of Management, Faculty of the London Business School
3. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, & William Snyder,  (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002). 


Get in touch: If you want to know more about fostering communities at work – [email protected]

Share your thoughts: How do you/your company engage employees in coming up with new ideas?

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