In order to facilitate innovation within their companies, leaders need to change their mindset to be more open about sharing “secret” information across teams. That is the surprising insight that has come out of one of the world’s most secretive organisations: The US Military.

I recently came across this insight from a speech given by General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan, in the video above. In it, he talks about the huge change in culture which has happened over the past decade, and especially over the past 4 years since many secret documents were leaked to the public.

top-secret-documents-gsa-containers-shredders11Historically, especially in the military, information was powerful, and the only people who were given access to the most important information were those people with a demonstrated need to know. This was usually determined by seniority and which division or silo you were in.

But as General McChrystal points out, it soon became apparent that it was harder to answer the question: who needed to know?

The culture shift in the US military is therefore shifting from “Who needs to know?” to “Who doesn’t know and we need to tell them!”

As he put it succinctly:

Information is only of value if it is with someone who can do something with it

What is your company not sharing within itself?

So why am I talking about the military on a blog devoted to innovation and business growth? Because a lot of mentality around secrecy is extremely prevalent in modern corporations. Much like in military divisions, the majority of large companies have strict divisions and hierarchies between departments, with management authority determined by position. Interestingly, this isn’t a coincidence, since when some of the fundamental business management processes and theories were being developed around the industrial revolution, they were heavily influenced by military theory of organisation from the time.

The impact of these silos existing within companies is that often information doesn’t flow naturally between them. Predominantly, the information which is shared is the positive information like successes because people like to celebrate this. On the other hand, teams or divisions who are having challenges  are much less likely to feel comfortable making other teams aware of this. In fact, many annual personnel performance review processes in companies are set up to reward successes and punish lower-performance, which can lead to a culture of secrecy.

theydontknowweknowAnd this really harms the innovation capability of a company. Fundamentally, innovation is about finding solutions to specific challenges. Not just challenges that your customers have, but also challenges which a company has internally (one of the Ten Types of Innovation). This can be anything from finding the reasons why experiments or prototypes are not working, to determining why customers are behaving in a certain way.

Conversely, a company which has instilled a culture which is more willing to discuss challenges is much more likely to find a solution to those challenges before they are given up on and classified as failures. Often, someone outside of the team working on a challenge may have an insight which provides a solution which nobody else would have considered.

There’s a couple of easy ways that leaders can change the culture of a company to make it less secretive:

  1. Depending on the size of the company, have a weekly “all hands” meeting to get feedback from all departments across the company, which includes not only sharing success stories, but sharing challenges which aren’t going as expected. This “all hands” time won’t be enough time to discuss solutions to the challenges themselves, but people with an insight will be made aware of it and can proactively offer their views.
  2. When department heads report on progress of developmental projects which take time and experimentation (such as ones developing a new technology, innovation or service), do not treat experiments which haven’t worked so far as failures. It takes time to find new solutions, and each experiment gives you data and insight which brings you closer to the solution which will work. After all, Edison did try more than 5,000 designs for the original lightbulb until he found one that worked as required.
  3. Company fairs, where all departments put on a little display of what they are working on, including work which is finished or nearly finished, and importantly also work-in-progress projects which are further down the pipeline. This should be open for anyone to attend.
  4. Encourage people to move between departments over time. This has an amazing ability to cross-pollinate knowledge and insight across the company over time, and also helps to build informal links between departments and break down silos, as people will have worked with each other in the past.
  5. Encourage higher levels of spontaneous interaction between people of different departments. This sort of interaction happens when people are away from their desks, such as when they’re in the canteen, walking through the building or even outside of work. A simple thing which can have a large impact: standing tables, either attached to the walls in hallways or in open spaces have the effect of people having short, spontaneous conversations with people from other departments more frequently.

Now I’m not suggesting that all information should be shared freely within a company (just think of the potential impact on intellectual property or data breaches). But I am saying that reducing a culture of secrecy in a company will improve its effectiveness at developing new innovations. And that’s an idea that should be shared with all company leaders.

Have you had any experience of success with people sharing challenges within the company? Or have you had bad experiences with leadership who think keeping information is powerful? Let me know in the comments below.

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