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?

In 2013 become the hero of your own story!


The New Year represents hope, resolution and change. A new year is a new chapter filled with potential and possibility. In 2013 – will we stick to our resolutions? Will we achieve our targets? Will we make the same mistakes as we have made in the past? Will we be able to build on our previous successes? Will we be prepared for unexpected obstacles? As I look ahead to 2013 I find much inspiration in the journeys of my Heroes; in their calling, their choices, their determination, their achievements and their obstacles.

“If you find a path with no obstacles it probably doesn’t lead anywhere” – Frank Clark

The Hero’s Journey is the basic storyline of all heroes and legends. The plot usually goes something like this. There is hero, except he/she doesn’t always know it. He lives in the ordinary world until he receives a ‘call’ to enter an unknown world. If the hero accepts the call he must face many obstacles. Initially the hero is alone but in time many new and unexpected helpers join him. Ultimately, the hero must survive a final challenge that will test him to the core. Upon success, the hero usually achieves a great gift or reward. The hero usually returns to his home with his newfound gift to share it with and benefit others. This is the basic journey of the Buddha, Gandhi, Luke Skywalker, Neo and even Bilbo Baggins.

I believe that we all get not just one but many such ‘calls to action’ during the course of our lifetime. These are moments that can define who we are, that give us an opportunity to use our talents, to follow our passions or to fulfill our purpose. Our calling can come in many different guises – an unexpected illness, losing your job, a new job opportunity, a dream, a new year’s resolution, a new hobby, a film, a book, etc. We are often caught off-guard by our calling, as we are rarely looking for it. Our missions usually find us.

Whilst we might not choose what happens to us, we absolutely can choose our response to any situation. Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether to ignore the call and stick to our routine life or whether to accept the call to enter an uncertain and risky world, with challenges, obstacles and ultimately ‘a reward/gift’ beyond our imagination.

If we accept the call we have to step way out of our comfort zone and welcome many adversities. We will have to face many challenges and trials head on. We will inevitably begin on these new paths alone. We will face our deepest fears and insecurities and learn to look at life in a way that we might not have done before. However, as we walk unexpected helpers, supporters, friends will come into our lives with assistance, guidance and support. They maybe people we know or people we have not even met yet but they will come from the most unexpected places. In following these new paths, in facing these adversities and in fulfilling these friendships we will be transformed and we’ll never be the same again.

I look forward to 2013 with much excitement, anxiety and hope. I have just started a new business, as a consultant and executive coach to the pensions and investment community. Lots of questions have been running through my mind in recent weeks – Am I doing the right thing? Where should I start? Will I find good clients? Will they be bring in an external consultant in this environment? Should I apply for a regular job instead?

The Hero’s journey inspires me to be brave, bold and not fear the unexpected. Instead, it pushes me to face my fears, to have faith in myself and to embrace adversity in order to achieve something extraordinary, maybe even to follow my calling and to fulfill my purpose.

“Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course” – William Shakespeare

I wish you all the best in finding your calling, facing your fears and in all your adventures over the next 12 months.

Happy New Year!

What lies ahead? Looking beyond the horizon

How will the world evolve over the next 5-10 years?

2012 is almost over. We will no doubt be bombarded by dozens of articles and research pieces with their predictions for 2013. I don’t know what the next 12 months will bring (I don’t think anybody else does either).

We have been in a volatile uncertain market, muddling through the economic challenges we have created over the past few decades. Most forecasters predict it will remain this way for a couple of years. This is the consensus view.

It’s hard to find much research on what lies beyond the next couple of years. What lies beyond the horizon? The timeframe that I am interested in is 5-10 years.

I think whether you’re a CEO, a pension fund trustee or an individual 5-10 years is the time horizon you’re interested in order to make sensible medium term investment and business decisions.

I was inspired to create this presentation by the dearth of quality research and analysis on this valuable time horizon.

In this presentation I consider various scenarios for how economies and markets might evolve over the next 5-10 years and identify investment strategies for those scenarios.

Enjoy the Prezi!

Get in touch if you would like to hear more: [email protected]

We have a problem!

When I was at school I was pretty good at Maths and I was told by my teachers that I should become an Actuary and work in the city. I was told the investment firms take the brightest minds, make them work very hard and in return, reward them very handsomely. It was all about money, status and power. This sounded particularly appealing especially for a guy saddled with debts from going through university in London.

For the past 12 years I have worked in the City, more than half of that in a medium sized fund management company. We invested people’s savings in equities (shares), property and bonds to earn them a better return than they might get from the bank. I could definitely say that we felt pretty good about our work and our role in society… until 2008… when things changed.

Over the past 4 years the image of the city has gone from intelligent, hard working, wealthy and often envied to being portrayed as greedy, crooked and immoral. That’s a big change to deal with psychologically and for me and many of my peers it’s been a hard reality to face.

Whilst some of these negative feelings maybe justified not just towards bankers, but also for politicians and corporates and the media; some of these feelings are quite unjustified. In general, most of the people I have worked with over the years are decent people, who work very hard, make many personal sacrifices and are quite conscious of their responsibility in managing their customers’ life savings.

There is no doubt that many people have lost a lot of money in recent times, markets have been unpredictable, banks are unstable, funds didn’t do what they said on the tin and its no surprise that the average person finds it hard to know who to trust and where to put their savings.

I want to change that.  I feel I owe it to the industry and the city that has given me so much. I know I can’t do it alone, in fact I don’t think any single company can either.  It will need us to work together across the city to rebuild society’s trust in our industry again.  It will need ideas … lots of ideas from all those that really care about the industry, the city and business.

Here’s one small idea that might make a difference – a change that might help us educate, inform and reduce information asymmetries to build a deeper contract with society (and our clients) and take a small step to rebuilding trust in the financial system:


Information is immensely powerful. The people that have information (experts in any industry) often use it to profit from those who don’t have it and who want it (consumers).

Now most people (and also organisations) act in their own best interests; most people respond to incentives; most people will be more inclined to do something if everyone around them is doing it.

So this information asymmetry gives power in the hands of a few, power corrupts, especially if incentives encourage it and everyone else is doing it – whether journalists (that need a story), car salesmen or insurance salesmen (looking for commission), doctors, estate agents or fund managers.

One solution:

We could use the internet’s power to shift valuable information from those who have it to those that want it (possibly with the kind of impact that the insurance market has seen, reducing premiums but increasing trust). Let’s educate the consumer about money, savings and investment.

For example, we could educate customers that “Day to day changes in markets are fairly random”; “the longer you hold on to your investments the better the chance of meeting your investment objectives”; “good things really do come to those who wait”; “fund managers/banks also benefit if customers to keep their money invested with them for as long as possible”. This in turn could encourage longer term contracts between fund managers and investors.

What ideas do you have?

To get involved take a look at the Future of Fund Management 2020 Challenge


Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Today I found myself remembering teachers from my past that have inspired me, encouraged me and ignited my imagination. I miss that feeling… This got me thinking. Who are my teachers today? And how can I jump start my learning again?

When we’re at school/university it’s clear what we’re learning and who is teaching us – it’s a very deliberate and organised process. But once we’re out in the big wide world learning is far less structured, less organised and depends very much on what we do/seek, how curious and keen to learn we are.

One might feel we are learning all the time in this global information age, as we are bombarded by information & we have access to news as it happens all around the world. But are we really learning, are we growing, if so what are we learning? TS Elliot put it well – “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”.

Some might feel we are just floating with the tide, wedded to the same routines and habits every day, making the same mistakes again and again. When we’ve had too much, we escape into a film, a novel or on holiday. What little we learn is absorbed passively from the TV, newspapers and the internet. We learn many lessons passively: look after yourself; you can’t trust anyone; live for the moment; fulfill your dreams; spend your way to happiness; your success is defined by what your possess. It’s not surprising that we live in a society plagued with worry, depression & stress.

One thing is for sure, if we want to change the situation, we have to change our behaviour; and if we want to change our behaviour, we have to change our thinking.

I once read that “A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others. ” but we rarely see this in our modern times.

However, if you look carefully you’ll find great teachers all around you. Throughout our adult life we come into contact with many mentors and guides that give us their time, support and encouragement, pushing us to stretch our boundaries.

We need to surround ourselves with such people that challenge us, make us think, question and grow. All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.

It’s no surprise that our learning grinds to a halt as we grow older, as we get busy with ‘life-admin’, we stop asking questions, and think we know enough.

Whatever age we are, whatever stage we’re at, we can reaffirm our commitment to learning, strive to open our minds, be curious, be inquisitive and be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. There is so much to learn still about ourselves, about each other, about human relationships, about life and about the world.

What are we waiting for?

Future of Fund Management 2020 Challenge


  • Do you work in asset management or work in a company that sells, promotes, advises, consults and or supports clients who investment in funds?
  • Does it bother that your friends don’t save enough, don’t invest enough, don’t know enough about the importance of saving for their future?
  • Does it worry you that your generation is likely to live longer, work longer and will likely get far less pension support from your employers or the government than previous generations?
  • Do you get annoyed with the use of jargon to make things more complex than they need to be?
  • Are you concerned about the future of your industry and the future that you will inherit?
  • Do you worry that today’s leaders may not have the incentive to bring about the radical changes necessary to get the industry trusted again?
  • Would you like to do something about it?

If your answer is yes to the questions above then you should take part in the “Future of Fund Management” challenge.

“Future of Fund Management” 2020 Challenge – Create an informative, education, fun and memorable ‘You Tube’ video, infographic or animation targeted at young people to answer one/more of the following questions:

  • Why should I save for my future now?
  • Should I buy a pension?
  • Where should I invest my savings?
  • How do I decide where to invest my money?
  • ABC of pensions & investment

If you’re interested in taking part, as an individual or as a team, simply reply to this post or send me an email ([email protected]) with your expression of interest.

If you’re company would like to help, support or sponsor this challenge get in touch.

Best of luck!