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Tue, Jan 4, 2011

Talent Strategies

Hidden Genius: How IBM Spurs Innovation Through Collaboration

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Photo: Elie Honein

What does it take to unlock the quiet genius of colleagues, the collective genius of customers, and the hidden genius of potential collaborators of all sorts? The answer is certainly not less leadership. Nor is it more of the same leadership, but with a little less ego and a little smarter approach to brainstorming.

What it takes is an entirely new leadership mind-set—a clear-eyed recognition that in a high-pressure, fast-changing world, where the only way to outperform the competition is to out-think the competition, the most successful leaders are the ones who make it their business to get the best ideas from the most people, whatever their background, job title, or position in the hierarchy.

The most powerful ideas come from the most unexpected places: the quiet genius inside the organization; the collective genius around the organization; the hidden genius of customers and suppliers who’d share what they know if only they were asked.

IBM has launched all sorts of initiatives to shake up its culture, challenge its legacy of top-down control, and surface insights from engineers and executives all over the world—including its Innovation Jams, a remarkable experiment to rethink how IBMers think.  Talk about group genius: with Innovation Jams, tens of thousands of employees answer questions, share ideas, and influence the company’s point of view on new markets, promising technologies, and emerging problems.

Back in 2006, in what has become a much-heralded case study among academic experts on innovation and collaboration, the company posted detailed information on key technologies that had been developed in its labs, and invited rank-and-file participants to suggest ways to turn these nascent technologies into real businesses.  Much of the impetus for the 2006 Jam came directly from CEO Samuel J. Palmisano, who has built on the legacy of his predecessor, turnaround guru Lou Gerstner, in changing the game at IBM.

As the story goes, during his annual review of the cutting-edge work being done by the company’s research division, Palmisano was struck by the enormous potential impact of so many of the technologies in IBM’s labs. But he was worried about how he and a small group of senior executives could work through the enormous challenges of figuring out which technologies to commercialize when.  They just weren’t smart enough to make those calls, because nobody could have been smart enough to make those calls.  Palmisano’s answer was to make it possible for 150,000 participants in 104 countries to spend seventy-two hours debating which were the most promising technologies and what were the most effective ways to bring them to market.

After that first round of grassroots interaction, a team of fifty executives spent a week making sense of the conversation, looking for trends, and identifying thirty-one “big ideas” that stood out from among the cacophony. Participants around the world then got another seventy two hours to refine and develop those ideas.  Ultimately, IBM wound up investing a total of $100 million in the ten most compelling ideas, from a smart health-care-payment system to intelligent utility networks to integrated mass-transit information systems to branchless banking for remote markets.  In fact, the process worked so well that IBM turned the Jam itself into a business—selling its expertise in virtual collaboration to other big companies eager to discover what their people already knew.

What did CEO Sam Palmisano and the senior leadership of IBM get right?

“First, [they] had enabled people with big ideas to articulate them to a wider audience, including skeptics, to hear other’s complementary ideas and to win funding,” the MIT Sloan Management Review analysis concluded. “Second, and probably more important, it had allowed people whose ideas weren’t quite so big and who hadn’t been able to find the place for their ideas within IBM to present them in ways that senior people could understand.”

I participated in the company’s 2008 Innovation Jam, which was dedicated to describing the “Enterprise of the Future” rather than identifying new business opportunities. I got to lead a discussion about the impact of the financial meltdown on strategy, growth, and innovation.  It was a remarkable experience—IBMers (as well as outsiders) from the United States, Brazil, China, India, Finland, and many other countries sharing stories, worries, and perspectives on what the financial meltdown meant for them and their business units.

All told, in the course of seventy-two hours, the Jam attracted nearly 94,000 log-ins and generated nearly 30,000 posts. It included nearly 4,500 posts from India, more than 3,200 posts from China, nearly 1,500 posts from Brazil, and more than a thousand posts from Australia and New Zealand.  It was a real-time window into the best thinking at IBM (and at more than a thousand other organizations that participated) on some of the world’s toughest problems and some of the biggest issues facing companies everywhere.

Sitting in a control room on the leafy IBM Learning Center campus in Armonk, New York, watching as scientists, engineers, and marketers from every corner of the globe shared their ideas in hundreds of simultaneous conversations, I was struck by the scale and scope of the brainpower at work—and by the limits of the lone genius.  How could even the most inspired thinking of one CEO (thinking alongside his or her closest confidants) rival the collective insights of ninety-four thousand Jammers with an endlessly diverse array of backgrounds, experiences, and locations?

As IBM’s collaboration-minded Jane Harper says, “The more I know, the more I know there is to know.”

Excerpted from Practically Radical by William C. Taylor (William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).  Photo: Elie Honein

For more from William C. Taylor on talent management, brainstorming and the bottom line, check out For a New Year, A New Hiring Process from the Monster Employer Resource Center.

About the Author

William C. Taylor is a co-founder of Fast Company and author of the new book, Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself ; he is co-author of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win (with Polly LaBarre). He has published numerous essays and CEO interviews in the Harvard Business Review and hosts a blog for HBR on being “Practically Radical”; he’s been a columnist for the Sunday Business section of The New York Times and for The Guardian. Taylor is a graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management. For more information on the author, please visit www.williamctaylor.com.

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