Innovation : Break down Internal Barriers

Paul Sloane is the author of the The Innovative Leader and the Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and the founder of Destination Innovation ( ) which helps organisations improve leadership and innovation.

  1. Publish everyone’s objectives and activities on the intranet so that people know what other people are working on.
  2. Organise cross-functional teams for all sorts of projects. Make them as loose or as formal as you see fit but be sure that there is good mixing and that all the departments involved contribute.
  3. Arrange plenty of social and extra-curricular activities e.g. sports, quizzes, book clubs, hobby clubs, special interest groups etc.
  4. Have innovation contests where cross-functional teams compete.
  5. Have frequent secondments between departments.
  6. Deliberately rearrange the office layout from time to time so that people move desks and sit with new groups ( or adopt a hot desk approach ).
  7. Organise a cross-functional innovation incubator.
  8. Encourage department managers to look for ideas, input and solutions from outside their departments. Publicly praise managers who do this.

Within larger organisations one of the biggest obstacles to innovation is poor internal communication. A ‘silo’ mentality develops so that departments guard information and ideas rather than share them. People work hard – but in isolated groups. Internal politics can compound the problem with rivalry and turf wars obstructing collaboration. It can reach the ridiculous stage where the enemy is seen as another department inside rather than the competitors outside.

The leader has to tear down the internal fences, punish internal politics and reward co-operation. This sometimes calls for drastic or innovative actions.

Nokia has an informal rule that no-one should eat lunch at their desk or go out for lunch. People are encouraged to eat in the subsidised cafeterias and to mix with people from outside their department. They have found that the informal meetings across departments are beneficial in sharing ideas and understanding.

Every organization has to find ways to promote internal communication and collaboration and to fight internal division and competition. Here are some ideas for breaking down barriers to communication :-

It is natural for departments in organisations to become more insular. As the organisation grows, good internal communication becomes more and more difficult. There was a saying in Hewlett Packard – ‘If only HP knew what HP knows!’ Very often the knowledge and skills needed to solve your problem exist elsewhere in the company. Knowledge sharing and collaboration are essential for innovation success. A key responsibility of the innovative leader is to constantly fight the silting up of the internal communications and to force contact and sharing between departments.

© Copyright 2009 - Paul Sloane

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