Why environment matters to innovation
In this context, environment has several meanings. The first is obvious, the environment in which you work. Is the physical environment conducive to innovation? The second context is the intangible environment erected by your corporate culture. This creates barriers and limits to thinking, to risk and uncertainty. Does your intangible environment block innovation? The third context is an internal/external environment. How "far" does your environment reach? Do you have extensive interactions and networks with external partners, customers and prospects? The fourth context examines the fluidity of your environment. Does your organization have porous borders? Can you find a good idea or technology outside the boundaries of your organization and bring in "inside"?
If physical environments didn't matter to the human condition then we'd all live in the most simple, unadorned caves. Designers, architects and people concerned with interior design, spaces and human interaction understand that spaces and environments impact the thinking and behavior of the people in the environment. A dull gray regimented environment leads, more often than not, to dull gray regimented thinking. I had the chance to lead an innovation session with a client this week in a space purpose built for creativity and innovation. Several of the people commented as they entered the space "I feel more comfortable and creative already". Their work environment (where the environment is built for efficiency) doesn't support or sustain creativity. Space, environment, design of the physical meeting and idea generation space matters. Every firm that seeks to create more innovation ought to either create a more creative space in which its innovation teams can work, or find local partners who offer such spaces. Some we've worked with include Catalyst Ranch and the Magellan Idea Center.
While we interact with the physical environment - walls, floors, halls and cubes - we also interact with the intangible environment. By intangible environment I mean the attitudes, perspectives and organizational thinking and history formed by corporate culture. These create intangible "walls" as rigid and unyielding as physical walls. A risk averse, highly efficient firm can create an interesting new physical space, but it must also change its intangible environment - its culture. Any sufficiently powerful culture can impact how people think, the depth and breadth of their ideas, the amount of creativity they are willing to embrace and the kinds of ideas they can create. The intangible environment must be addressed at least as much as the tangible environment.
Reach of your networks
In the book the Innovator's DNA the authors describe five qualities that many innovators share. One of them is the breadth and diversity of the individual's network. Your corporate environment impacts the breadth and depth of your network, and by extension your ability to generate interesting ideas. It's been demonstrated that good innovators have larger, more extensive and more diverse networks. They are influenced by ideas and technologies within their industry or geography, and by ideas that exist outside their industry or geography. These insights are refreshed by conferences, trade shows, customer interactions and their personal and professional networks. When companies limit travel or restrict access to trade shows or conferences, or provide marketing information on paper rather than as an engagement with live prospects, they limit the experience and the external environment, which limits the range and depth of insights and ideas.
How porous is your boundary?
Henry Chesbrough popularized the idea of "open" innovation, and it continues to be a source of great discussion. The real question for your organization and its "environment" is - how porous is your corporate boundary? Has your executive team come "on board" to the idea of open innovation? What types or approaches are acceptable? What potential partners or customers can contribute ideas, technology or intellectual property? What happens to the ideas as they cross the organizational threshold? Good ideas exist outside your organization, and may be within your innovation "environment" but your organization and its leadership must define the best partners and approved approaches, and must demonstrate that the origin of an idea is less important than its potential.
We live and work in a petri dish of physical walls and intangible expectations. Beyond our regular petri dish are other teams in other dishes working on similar and wildly different ideas and technologies. Realizing that the environment matters, adjusting both the internal and external environments to achieve more innovation, and integrating both environments for greater innovation exchange will drive far more innovation in your business.