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Sima Shimansky

Why Is Structure Important in Innovation?

Why is an innovation program better for idea management than a suggestion box or an Excel spreadsheet? The answer can be summed up in one word: structure. Structuring innovation means building the foundation for idea submission. Around which topics will people innovate? What are the rules or constraints governing idea submission? Which people or teams will be involved in the process? Building an innovation program means thinking about each of these elements of structure–who, what, and how–before idea submission even begins.

But why is structure important? Can’t we just jump into ideation?

Structure breeds creativity

The architect Frank Gehry once admitted that he faced his greatest architectural challenge when asked to design a house with no constraints. “I had a horrible time with it,” he explained. “It’s better to have some problem to work on.” The same principle applies in innovation: context and guidelines for idea submission help innovators know how and where to direct their energies.

In the Great Work Study, a collaboration between the Cicero Group, Forbes Insights and the O.C. Tanner Institute which analyzed 1.7 million cases of award-winning work, the researchers found that “people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints... Time, structure, money and space are all constraints that give us a starting point and some building blocks to work with—a problem to solve, or an innovative twist to be revealed.” Without some context or constraint, it’s difficult to know where to begin. A problem or challenge provides the structure necessary to springboard us into action.

Similarly, in the artist Phil Hansen’s TED Talk, he shares how a physical limitation due to nerve damage in his hand nearly caused him to give up on art until a doctor encouraged him to “embrace the shake,” or in other words, to harness the power of the limitation. This message gave him a re-entry point into art as he started to explore the limits and possibilities of working with a shaky hand. He learned: “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.” There’s an inherent power in a limitation. Limitations provide a structure within which we can become creative.

Structure translates into relevant ideas

When you direct participants to focus on specific areas of your business, and you’re clear about the constraints that need to be met in order to get an idea approved, you’re more likely to get relevant ideas that you can take action on. Without a strong context, it’s difficult for innovators to come hit high on the relevancy scale and for decision makers to judge the merits of the idea. If good ideas show fitness to their environment then the best ideas will emerge when that environment is well-defined with a clear objective and idea evaluation criteria. And, in the cases where you’re faced with some ideas that aren’t a good fit even despite a defined context, decision-makers have a cogent argument for declining an idea without making things personal.

Within a defined structure, ordinary people can come together to create extraordinary innovations

In his essay “The End of Creativity,” Kevin Ashton attempts to debunk some myths about creativity, namely that it’s the work of geniuses having flashes of insight. He argues that innovation is rarely the work of one individual in an ‘a-ha’ moment. Instead, it’s a step by step journey and often a collaborative one which leads to innovation by each person building on the work of others. Structure provides a place for many people to approach the same problem or challenge simultaneously and work together, building on each other’s insights, to come up with a solution.

Steven Johnson’s TED Talk “Where Good Ideas Come From” draws a similar conclusion about the type of environment that leads to innovation. Johnson describes the human tendency to “think of an idea as a single thing” when the truth is that “an idea is a network on the most elemental level. Ideas are cobbled together from whatever is lying around.” We form them by taking things we’ve learned or heard or read about and bringing them together in new ways. We form ideas by making connections and therefore the best environments for cultivating ideas are ones which create and nurture those connections. A defined innovation structure connects people around conversation and these conversations help ideas evolve into innovations.