Overcoming Innovation Program Anxiety: Smashing Silos Encourages Participation – Here’s How

Overcoming Innovation Program Anxiety: Smashing Silos Encourages Participation – Here’s How
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All forward-thinking companies are focused on innovation – at least in theory. In practice, many companies may think they’re working on innovation, when all they’re actually doing is circling the drain. Because innovation appears to be such a mystical process, companies lose sight of any process – waiting and hoping for a lucky break, without any real strategy. Which is exactly why they fail.

Innovation is a creative process – and one that lends itself well to the benefits of community. When companies innovate, their best endeavors are for the good of all. So why not rely on the input of all in deciding what gets innovated? This post is to help you work through hesitations about seeking input in unusual places.

Traditional corporate structure is crumbling. The antiquated notion that each department is a nation unto itself – the metaphorical silos of old – has been shifting, and enterprises are now embracing a new world of cross-collaboration.

And nothing stands to benefit from this shift more than your innovation program.

If you’re following the advice we’ve laid out in previous posts about innovation programs you know that assembling a killer team is a key component of getting your innovation program up and running. And smashing silos is one way to make sure your team is well-rounded and representative of your company as a whole – not just one department.

There Is No “Silo” in Team

Let’s be clear about something before we go any further: Silos aren’t ALL bad. As FastCompany’s Neil Smith says, “Silos are necessary in companies. They provide the structure that allows companies to work…. This structure allows expertise in different areas.” True.

But Smith follows that up with the downsides, which are:

  • “Nonaligned priorities
  • Lack of information flow
  • Lack of coordinated decision making across silos”

Innovation killers, all.

Smith claims, “Cooperation, communication, and collaboration are the three keys to working across silos. Those are components that any successful working relationship would have ideally, but they are must-haves if you are going to break the organizational silos barrier.”

Innovation program success depends on making sure communication flows in all directions, not just up and down. But it’s easier than you think. Start by sourcing team members from multiple business units/departments.


Your team needs C-level support, right? Nothing says it has to be from the same department as the one currently running an innovation challenge. Now consider the other roles that need to be covered – a marketing presence to promote the innovation challenge within the organization, someone from legal to advise and draft legal terms as needed, and an HR contact to help with incentive options and sourcing potential Hackathon participants.

Add in a few SMEs to provide relevant expertise while developing and evaluating promising ideas and you’re off to a diverse start.

The Team Does Not Stand Alone

What these various players – an extension of your core innovation team – do is show the rest of the company that innovation is not strictly an Engineering concern, or an IT project, or any other single business-unit issue. Innovation is a company-wide affair, and you need to do all you can to promote that and make it a reality.

Here are some other ways to smash silos and foster an environment of cross-collaboration:

Strategic sponsor recruitment – Contrary to what might seem a logical assumption, challenge sponsors don’t have to be from the department running a particular innovation challenge. In fact, it makes sense for them NOT to be. After all, no department exists in a vacuum, and as soon as you think Sales has nothing to offer Engineering (or vice versa), you’re guaranteed to discover otherwise. An outside perspective might be all that’s needed for an innovation breakthrough. Ask for one.

Invite a diverse audience to challenges – For the same reason you’d ask for a sponsor from a different department, inviting various groups of people to participate in your innovation challenges is important. Because now you’re getting that outside perspective ten-fold. There’s not just safety in numbers – there’s creativity too.

Active moderation of challenges – If you let your innovation challenges “run themselves” you can imagine what kind of participation you’ll get – especially if your innovation program is new and your company culture has never been about innovation until now. Drive collaboration by actively monitoring what’s coming through your innovation platform. Reach out to every department to be sure they know the challenge is happening and their input is welcome and encouraged.

Play matchmaker – Create mini-teams to work together and offer input throughout the challenge by matching up those who submit similar/linked ideas in your innovation portal, or mixing and matching team-mates across various departments to intentionally stir things up.

Create goals that transcend business units – When your innovation goals are too narrow, it’s easy for everyone to leave everyone within that particular silo to their own devices to solve challenges. If you broaden your goals to span every area of the enterprise, you’ll have a much easier time inspiring all departments to contribute to innovating solutions. Especially if you combine the strategies above to achieve your innovation goals.

Vijay Govindarajan, Coxe Distinguished Professor at the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and NY Times bestselling author gave a great example of this last point when writing on innovation in the Harvard Business Review:

“An innovation agenda creates necessity, inspires people to work together, and in the best cases it demands that they do. That’s why President Kennedy’s challenge to NASA was so brilliant: ‘By the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon and safely return him to earth.’ NASA had no choice; they had to collaborate every day in order to do something no one had ever done before. The silos came tumbling down.”

Be Selective, Not Exclusive

Another important thing to remember when getting your innovation program into gear is that not everyone will want to participate – and that’s okay. It’s also perfectly okay to seek out specific people you think have something special to offer.

But don’t turn away anyone willing to be involved just because they fall outside your preconceived notion of what you think you need. No one should be excluded if they WISH to participate.

Because when unusual partners collaborate – well that’s usually when the magic happens.

We’re sure NASA would agree. We think you will too. Let us know in the comments below.

You can read more about ways to have a successful innovation program including smashing down those silos in our ebook One Innovation Program to Rule Them All or Contact Us to walk you through options to bring your innovation program to the next level of success.