Joshua Redman trio
Innovation isn't about collecting ideas, it's about connecting previously unrelated thoughts and putting them into action PHOTO: Alberto Cabello

Establishing innovation as part of the way we work in the digital workplace is the holy grail for many organizations. 

What we see, however, is that as we transplant face-to-face activities into virtual working, we lose that opportunity for innovation. 

Sometimes we try to force it — usually via top-down innovation initiatives that focus on collecting new ideas. But this doesn't have to be the case. We lose sight of the fact that digital workplace tools are all about collaboration, and are quite handy for creating and capturing innovative conversations. 

So before we dive straight into trying to capture ideas, we need to appreciate and exploit what we already have.

Peer to Peer Networks Facilitate Innovation

I'll use Office 365 to demonstrate how this works in practice because of its prevalence in so many organizations. While Office 365 usually receives attention for the move to the cloud, what goes underappreciated is its ablility to transform workplaces. We're suddenly working in a fully digital landscape, with more possibilities for virtual collaboration than ever before.

Innovation, after all, is all about collaboration, connecting disparate strands of thought, facilitating discovery. The chances of a new idea, of true innovation, are exponentially increased by our participation in peer to peer networks. We now have the capability to facilitate these conversations in our digital toolset to create the right conditions for innovation.

Here is the how you can make this happen in Office 365:

Innovation Is Not an Ideas Portal

Innovation is not about collecting ideas. Innovation initiatives that focus solely on collecting and voting on ideas are doomed to fail. It’s far more than simply throwing solutions around: it's understanding the problem and learning from others. 

In short, it's creating everyday opportunities that have the potential to add value to the business. To develop these opportunities, the digital workplace needs us to be active and open in discussions. Ideas begin to flow from here.

Such opportunities for innovation stem from multiple people working on a real problem. For example, several team members on a Teams video call to discuss a technical issue that will likely delay the project. Someone posts the issue on Yammer to broaden its reach. Suddenly we’re opening up the issue to a wider audience. 

Elsewhere, somebody adds thoughts to OneNote from a client meeting. These thoughts are then shared to a relevant Group, again opening up this knowledge to conversations, connecting it up to someone else's needs.

This is grassroots innovation. We're connecting one strand of activity to something novel. Innovation is based on this: Creating opportunities by starting conversations out in the open, creating the potential to connect previously unrelated strands of thought.

Office 365 Can Move Collaboration From Passive to Active

When people ask me what the most effective innovation tool is, I always respond "collaboration." 

Yes, collaboration is a tool. It’s something we leverage to meet an objective. Never, ever assume collaboration is an end point. 

Collaboration tools without adoption or engagement programs will only ever get us collaborating passively, that is, pulling knowledge and experience from the network to get a job done. It’s the common means of finding important information, or searching for an expert who can help us with things that slow us down.

What opens the door for innovation is active collaboration. Improving knowledge by passing it on via @mentions or posts, by commenting with additional thoughts, by placing it in front of those who might benefit. It’s about growing networks and relationships with knowledge and information as the connection. 

Here are some of the more effective ways of bringing active collaboration to life on Office 365:

  • Senior leaders visibly and actively posting to Yammer. Sharing knowledge from the expensive conference they attended in Vegas, responding to the updates of others. And even better: asking for help. Demonstrating through action the behavior they want us to model. Nothing gives us tacit permission more than our leaders doing what they preach
  • Providing feedback to content creators in Yammer and in Teams. It can be as simple as a ‘like’ on Yammer, through to informing someone why you found their posting useful. Get the oxytocin flowing by feeling appreciated
  • Publish project updates in Teams, freeing up meetings for conversations that introduce new thinking and deal with challenges. Turn team meetings into something to look forward to!

Listen to Your Teams - And Act On It

Like any business program, people won't respond unless they feel a sense of ownership or belonging. With something as open and disruptive as innovation, ignore engagement at your peril. So start at a grass roots level and really understand what innovation means to your teams.

  • What is the vision? Connect it to the customer. Why do we have to change our ways to benefit them? Use Teams, Yammer, Skype For Business, whatever it takes to have the conversation
  • Listen to your team. What will stop them enacting this vision? More often that not, it’s a fear of being seen, a fear of failure, a lack of confidence in the ability to innovate and wanting to conform to the expectations of their leadership. Acknowledge all of these barriers to innovation, write them up in SharePoint. Review them regularly
  • Create a Group to work with your team on all of the barriers, bringing other parties from other business teams into the Group or a workshop if necessary. Collaboratively, identify ways around them. It’s easier than you think. Knowing what stops us really helps us to come up with ways to move forward

With these steps in place, and people feeling comfortable working this way, we can start to apply innovative and creative thinking techniques. Then, and only then, we can decide if we actually need an ideas portal. We may find that the innovative thinking arising spontaneously through great collaborative habits is enough.

It’s all about the conversation. Office 365 has become a tool geared towards encouraging conversations. So let’s get the basics right and focus on that. Get collaboration right, and innovation will follow.