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Tear Down These Walls!

In 1987, president Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech in which he implored Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

I’m going to paraphrase his history-altering quote and urge today’s business leaders to tear down these walls!

Which walls?

The ones that get in the way of cross-communication within organizations and prevent innovation from taking place. Unlike the Berlin Wall, you can’t see these walls because they’re invisible. But they exist, and they represent major impediments to creating meaningful innovation, especially in large companies.

Just look at the way most organizations are physically set up. Accounting in one area, marketing in another, management on the top floor with the nicest offices and best views out the window. Employees rarely interact with other departments unless they need something to get their jobs done.

In addition, many leaders and managers hesitate to share information with other departments, believing that controlling the data puts them in a position of power. In situations where team or departmental goals don’t align with organizational goals, they can actually get rewarded for withholding information.

So the invisible walls go up, communication goes down, and the ability to innovate goes out the door.

How do you tear down these walls?

Communicate using a variety of channels and methods.

Think of all the different ways you communicate with customers, including web sites, blogs, white papers, surveys, social media, and more. Now start using them to communicate with employees. In particular, social media makes an excellent tool for encouraging employees to connect with each other and learn what other teams, departments, or locations are up to. Also, consider offering weekly or monthly breakfasts or lunches where people from different areas of the company get together to update each other on their activities. Sounds easy but it rarely happens!

Encourage intra-company collaboration.

In many cases, successful innovation comes from company-wide efforts. Use appropriate incentives to encourage data sharing and cross-unit cooperation. Make sure performance objectives are aligned across departments. Use internal competition to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. Apply “survival of the fittest/free market” models throughout the organization so that the best ideas win out, regardless of where they come from, and reward all ideas.

Form diverse, cross-functional innovation teams.

Fill your innovation teams with people who think and see the world the same way and you’ll get the same old tired ideas. Instead, develop teams with diverse backgrounds, thinking skills and analytical styles, and make sure all those styles get heard in meetings and conversations.

Expand your sources of information.

The information we put into our brains plays a large role in determining the quality of ideas that come out. Select a balanced and varied diet and your intellect will have the necessary resources to generate better ideas. Ask: How much time do we spend collecting data and from what sources? Could we look somewhere else? Should we consider information from competitive sources, other industries, the world at large? Study successful companies outside your industry to see what could be applied to your business.

Actively encourage opposite points of view.

Too often, employees defer to the person leading the meeting or the one with the most positional power. If people don’t offer differing points of view, ask for them! For example, “We all seem to be thinking along the same lines here. I’d like to hear from someone who sees it differently.” People also tend to feel threatened by opposing viewpoints. Teach people how to present their opinions without putting down others, and how to hear opposing opinions without automatically going to a place of defending their own.

Collaborate with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

In addition to tearing down internal walls, get rid of those that block communication with the outside world. Ask questions like: Are we customer focused, designing from the outside in? Do we create customer needs rather than just respond to them? Do we outsource non-critical capabilities to free up more resources for innovation? Do we get suppliers and intermediaries involved in our innovation efforts? Is our organization easy to do business with?

Most of all don’t allow people to ridicule new ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem. And don’t tolerate finger pointing or blaming between individuals, teams, or departments when things go wrong. Teach people how to resolve conflict around issues rather than personalities, and make sure all viewpoints are represented. People don’t always have to agree on everything, but they do need to feel respected and heard.

Tear down the invisible walls in your organization and give your people the freedom to innovate. You’ll be amazed at what they come up with!

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