Project 12: Innovation and Social Risk

A large information technology organization was responsible for developing and supporting high-volume transactional systems for financial services clients. Since these were mature products with relatively small enhancement lists, the version release cycles could be planned with a relatively high degree of accuracy. However, the general opinion across the executive team was that testing continued to consume a disproportionate amount of time (or at least that it could be done more quickly). While the development and testing teams were segregated, interactions across teams were common. As would be expected in a large organization, members from various teams could be on committees and working groups together, have friends on different teams, or any number of other reasons to interact.

During a project review activity, it was discovered that a member of one of the development teams learned of an innovative method for testing database performance at volume. The result of this innovation, if widely adopted, would save testing time. However, the innovation was shared with only a few others in the organization. In effect, the innovation had been blocked. Management quickly wanted to understand how such an event could have happened.

As part of a separate project, social network analysis (SNA) data were being collected on a number of interaction types throughout the unit. These included work-based interactions, those based on friendship or social ties, and perceptions of technical expertise. The data indicated that the recipients of the innovation had strong friendship ties to the developer. In short, the employee shared the innovation with his closest friends in the organization. There are several research streams that offer explanations for this behavior. Namely, the expression of new ideas in groups can be threatening to a person's identity (one's perception of their self). Strong friendships provide a means of expressing new ideas without risk of social judgement (real and perceived). A person's tolerance for this type of risk regulates the amount of exposure he or she is willing to accept. In this case, the developer was comfortable communicating his idea only to a few friends.

Not surprisingly, the management team sought changes that would make it easier (and more comfortable) for all employees to contribute ideas. The solution was a simple change. A work improvement process was implemented that offered small PTO credits for all valid submissions and a range of cash bonuses for those that were adopted.

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