Must You Ask Permission to Talk to Others?Slide39

Getting the best talent is a challenge for all companies, universities, and government agencies. Great talent is the essential ingredient for achieving innovative success. But in most enterprises there is an equally serious problem – these talented professionals don’t, or are not allowed to, fully collaborate with each other. This means the enterprise’s collective IQ is reduced by orders of magnitude compared to what is possible.

Innovation is a process of learning, searching, and creating fast. Leveraging the collective genius of teammates and partners is the only way innovation can be achieved quickly and effectively. Having barriers to either information or knowledgeable colleagues is like reducing the oxygen supply to a person’s brain.

Open innovation is essential – we need to get the best outside ideas and partners to innovate fast and efficiently enough to win. But open innovation starts with an open enterprise, and there most organizations fail. Employees are frequently put in the equivalent of sound-proof boxes, where the information going in and coming out is like using a 300 bits per second modem from the 1970s.

While CEO of SRI International, whenever possible I would have lunch with new employees to get to know them and discuss their projects. I wanted to understand what drove their passion and brainstorm with them their “value propositions.”

One day I sat down with Ben, who had grown up in Israel. Ben satisfied his military obligation in Israel’s intelligence service. To be selected into this elite organization he took six weeks of tests and interviews that covered native intelligence, problem solving, knowledge, teamwork, perseverance, emotional stability, values, and more. They only accepted the best of the best. When people’s lives are at stake, merit is the only appropriate criterion.

Ben said, “They put us in teams of four or five, they gave us these incredibly difficult problems to solve, and we had few resources. If we didn’t solve the problems, people might die.” He said that his teammates fully realized the importance of their jobs. In extreme cases, they might represent an existential threat to the survival of Israel. The team was fully committed to their mission.

I asked, “What was the most memorable part of your experience?” He said, “We solved every problem we were given.” “All,” I asked. “Yes,” he said – “all.” I said, “That is remarkable.” “How was that possible?”

Ben noted that because the problems they were confronting were so challenging, it was obvious that no person could solve them alone. The men and women of Ben’s team had unique, complementary skills, educations, backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and perspectives. Without these diverse attributes they could not have succeeded.

Ben described how his team relentlessly developed and iterated working hypotheses for solving their problems. If necessary they worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. They aggressively learned, searched out, and created the knowledge they needed to verify or refute their working hypotheses.

Ben emphasized the importance of the senior professionals and mentors they worked with who encouraged, empowered, and provided the team with essential skills. His team insistently shared and gathered information, not only within their group, but also across other intelligence teams without regard to hierarchy or organizational borders. If Ben’s team needed to see a general to get information, he was empowered to do it. There were no excuses for failure; no one to blame; and no CYA. They were responsible. But Ben stressed that this access came with great responsibility. They had to be thoughtful and respectful of senior people’s time.

It is hard to imagine a better experience for succeeding in the global innovation economy. They were innovating as fast as possible using best practices. By working this way they addressed the important needs of their customers – the security of Israel.

After his service Ben came to America and obtained an MBA. He then went to work at a major Silicon Valley software company. Initially he was happy. His project was exciting and important. But he found that when he needed information from another division, he had to first work his way up the management chain and then down the other side to ask a question. Management was telling him, implicitly, that open communication was discouraged and he was not to be trusted. It was a closed enterprise, not an open enterprise like the one he had experienced in the Israeli intelligence service.

This was unacceptable to Ben. Given his background and understanding about how fast technology and the competition moves, Ben knew that this often led to failure. The company’s teams might not get and develop the new knowledge needed fast enough to be successful.

He was emphatic about how disturbing he found this. It was both intellectually benighted and personally disrespectful. If terrific staff are hired and then not respected enough to responsibly talk to others, why should they respect the company?

Ben left that company and came to SRI. Ben’s insights and beliefs are correct. I passionately believe that organizational structures cannot be attenuators of information and collaboration, but rather they must be amplifiers.

How about your organization? Are you in an open enterprise where you can responsibly talk to others, or does the organization put you in a small, sound-proof box? If they do, you can be sure that the collective intelligence of the enterprise is not nearly what it could be. And that is usually a major competitive disadvantage in the global innovation economy.