Four guiding principles for driving innovation in established institutions

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Innovation has never been more essential to the future of established institutions. As brilliant, forward-thinking disruptors reshape our understanding of everything from healthcare to education, and from handheld technology to air quality, companies and academic institutions must keep up. Better yet, they must find ways to get ahead of the curve to remain relevant to new generations of students, employees and customers.

As the Harvard Innovation Labs enter their eighth academic year, we are eager to share our learnings as one of the largest university-based innovation centers in the world — at the nation’s oldest academic institution.

Innovation has never been more essential to the future of established institutions.”

What are the hallmarks of effective innovation centers within established ecosystems?

It begins with designing an independent entity that does not belong to any single stakeholder, and is therefore open to all. It is essential that this environment is set up to support collaboration across disciplines, allowing the coalescence of distinct points of view, which we know to be the source of unprecedented solutions. It is equally important to acknowledge that innovation is not second-nature; to support it fully, we must offer resources to guide people when there are no paths to follow. Finally, an innovation center must acknowledge that failure is not only inevitable, but also integral to the process of iterating and refining to land at a viable solution.

Here is how these guiding principles have shaped the Harvard Innovation Labs — and how they can be applied to any incumbent organization looking to engage its entire community in the process of thinking differently.

1. Create an innovation center alongside — not within — the incumbent organization

To be truly world-changing, innovation needs to be organic, serendipitous, and free of judgment.

Whether in academia or business, innovative thinking evolves only when it is given free reign. Business innovation centers evaluated by their P&L, with revenue and income expectations and performance appraisals, do not tend to be successful.

It is only when an innovation center has support and representation from every group that it can feel truly inclusive. And, given how few opportunities stakeholders from different realms have to really engage with one another, it’s remarkable how quickly they discover ways to collaborate when given the chance. Few spaces can bolster such interaction better than a designated space for innovation.

An independent innovation center also enables individuals to experiment freely and in accordance with their personal passions, which we know to lead to more sustainable innovation. Today’s younger generations crave experiential learning. Rather than focusing exclusively on a career path, they’re saying, ‘I want to make an impact and a difference in the world.’ They might be in the early stages of their careers, yet they are already seeking a sense of meaning. When we give them the opportunity to use creativity to think about solving real problems using innovation, and allow them to apply what they know to the issues they’re passionate about, we end up with a far more engaged group — and a surplus of truly innovative ideas. And when that’s done in a non-evaluative environment, those ideas have the freedom to evolve and iterate for as long as needed to transform into truly viable solutions.

2. Encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration in a supportive community

Great ideas thrive on diversity of thought. Yet if people remain in their silos, opportunities are missed.

The intersections that lead to brilliant innovation are unexpected. And they occur when we approach the problems we are passionate about with the understanding that we cannot understand everything — but there may be someone in the room who can fill an essential gap.

For innovation to take place, it is essential to create an environment that, perhaps paradoxically, allows for serendipity. At the Harvard Innovation Labs, we refer to it as “Structured Serendipity,” and it is facilitated in part by curated events that unite diverse groups around shared passions, interests and challenges.

Creating a clear stimulus that encourages and guides newcomers to the innovation space has also proven a powerful tool, both in expediting innovator journeys and encouraging cross-disciplinary engagement. At the Harvard Innovation Labs, one of these stimuli is the annual President’s Innovation Challenge, created by former Harvard President Drew Faust in 2011 and sponsored by the Bertarelli Foundation. It is a quintessential manifestation of the One Harvard philosophy: a competition that asks students from all Harvard schools to come together and develop world-changing solutions. The financial awards certainly add extra incentive, but for participants, the process is more important than the outcome. Defining and understanding the problem and the customer before jumping to potential solutions is a critical step in the process.

When you believe in the power of cross-disciplinary innovation, instill that belief in across your entire organization, and develop the resources to support the coming together of different minds, you allow people to contribute beyond their departmental walls and offer novel solutions. This not only nurtures original thinking, but also permeates throughout the organization, promoting a culture of openness, curiosity, and a healthy questioning of the status quo.

3. Give people the skills and resources to be innovators

We know that merely putting a group of smart people in a room does not guarantee that innovation will take place — or be successful. It’s when we provide resources for learning and growth that we enable people to venture off the beaten path and discover new ways of being and doing.

At a large company, this might mean seminars that encourage people to collaborate or think creatively outside of their disciplines, or it might mean resources for travel, research or experimentation. At the Harvard Innovation Labs, it means programming, physical resources and people. Innovation and entrepreneurship courses demystify the processes of introducing new ideas into the world. Maker, AR/VR and media studios expedite the journey from idea to prototype. And access to mentors, advisors and sources of financing allows problem-solvers to see that innovation, despite being a path less travelled, is viable and essential nonetheless.

The more accessible we make our resources, and the more fundamental innovation becomes to an organization’s culture, the more forthcoming individuals become with their visions.

4. Drive success by supporting failure

Another essential skill any innovator must master is, of course, the ability to fail with grace — and carry on with gusto. For every success, there are dozens of ideas that do not materialize. Yet in an academic setting — as in the business world — failure is often an unacceptable result.

Successful innovation centers, however, view failure as integral to advancement, and advancement as a multi-step, collaborative process. Supporting this viewpoint means eliminating fiefdoms or ulterior motives, no competition, and no consequences. It means operating as an IP-Free Zone and not taking ownership of any ideas. It means creating a transparent environment where people are invested in each other’s success: so much so that they leave their work on the whiteboards because they want others to contribute. As an innovator, you don’t want to be in stealth mode, hiding your ideas. You have to share, get feedback, and iterate.

When an innovation center supports these processes, the entire organization benefits, because great new ideas are contagious. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our most valuable institutions to see those ideas through.

This brings us back full circle to the concept that innovation requires freedom — beginning with freedom from external influence and evaluation and ending with the freedom to fearlessly push a concept as far as possible.

This is the spirit that allows innovation centers to thrive and develop new solutions with traction and world-changing potential.


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