03/08/2012 05:04 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

"Futureproof" Innovation and the Power of Culture Clash

Innovation is the new synergy. A word that sounds sexy, but is so overused it has virtually lost any meaning.

Contrast that with actual innovation, which seems to be getting a bit rare. As David Brooks wrote late last year, about the only thing a time traveler from the '70s would be thunderstruck by today is information technology. Airplanes are pretty much the same, as are power plants, food production and hospitals.

Brooks attributes this innovation stagnation to three factors. First, the double hump of of the learning curve. Second, the loss of utopian élan. And third, the absence of culture clash.

While the first two are fascinating, space doesn't allow for an indepth description of them here. Instead, I would like to focus wholly on the third.

According to Brooks, great ideas come when asynchronous idea spaces come together, clash and create new hybrids that didn't exist before.

Working with Sustainable Cities International (SCI), an organization that helps people create more humane, environmentally friendly cities, I came to understand the innovative power of culture clash.

SCI believes innovation comes from four places: the top (mayors, city councils); the bottom (the disenfranchised); the outside (average citizens) and the inside (the actual innovation team).

When you create a cauldron that blends together these four sources of ideas, you come up with innovation that is resilient, real-world and inspired. Or, as I like to call it, futureproof.

Hyatt's 90,000 Innovators

In a preamble to this year's GLOBE 2012 Conference, Hyatt's VP of Corporate Responsibility Brigitta Witt described a similar idea to me, and confirmed the incredible power of contrasting cultures working together.

Hyatt, like every hotel chain, is always looking for ways to break down the innovation silos that form around individual properties.

To accelerate system-wide CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) innovation, the chain started by introducing a facebook-like global platform for associate engagement.

Not only did this platform break down the silos, but it accelerated learning, sharing, and competition.

Not surprisingly, innovation increased manifold. Efficiencies were increased, and new programs introduced. But most remarkably, innovations were adopted from one culture to another, tweaked and given unique twists.

For example, in Santiago, Chile, the team adopted the system-wide recycling initiative. Unfortunately, the city had no municipal recycling program. So the Hyatt associates partnered with charities to take the waste to recycling facilities, with all profits going to the charities.

Using big initiatives like recycling as platforms for local hotels to innovate upon has helped make Hyatt's CSR program strong, unique and a real point of pride for the 85,000 hotel associates.

Create The Platform, Then Step Back

Innovation is often treated as a trade secret. But closed vaults don't breed fresh thinking.

Instead, it pays to create platforms which thinkers with different perspectives can "riff" on.

  1. To do this successfully, ground rules need to be established. You can't play jazz unless you understand how to read music and play a scale.
  2. Clear goals need to be defined, with success measures. An idea is only great if it solves a problem elegantly.
  3. Rewards need to be created - but they don't need to be big, expensive trophies. Often, establishing a network (as Hyatt did) for sharing new ideas is enough to create a system of pride and accomplishment.

I'm attending the GLOBE 2012 conference this year, and looking forward to meeting some of my readers. If you're attending, let me know!