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Stop looking for innovators – hire some culture brokers instead

24 Jun 2019 By Alf Rehn

Employees who can assist in communicating between functions are the key to great ideas, says Alf Rehn, not a group of mythical ‘super-creatives’

As a researcher specialising in innovation and creativity, I frequently get asked how to hire a very specific group of people – the mythical tribes sometimes called ‘creatives’ or ‘innovators’. The people who ask rarely like it when I tell them such people do not exist – or, more to the point, that it’s a mistake to assume you can merely hire for creativity or innovation ability. All of us already have both, even if at times it might be unrealised. 

The fact of the matter is that good ideas, even the kinds that redefine businesses and topple industries, come from all kinds of people. Some come from bright young engineers, others from women of colour or of a certain age. Some can come from managers, others from those with oil-stained clothes and dirt under their fingernails. To think it could be any other way is to artificially limit the innovation capacity of your company.

However, this introduces a very specific challenge for the contemporary organisation. If there were a specific group that did all the ideating and innovating, managing this would be quite simple. But in an organisation where ideas can come from any number of people, belonging to any number of groups, things gets more complicated. Sure, the young engineer might have a great idea, but to develop this, they might need to connect with the ideas from others in the organisation with very different backgrounds and ways of communicating. 

Today, we speak not only of diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity, but a plethora of dimensions. There’s age, education and socio-economic background – all poised to make communication across categories more complex. Today, we even talk of neurodiversity, where different ways of thinking or being may set up barriers of communication and idea exchange. We’re all human, but if engineers feel they can’t talk to HR, and managers don’t understand how workers communicate, innovation gets exponentially harder. 

This is where the notion of culture brokers comes in. In organisation theory, cultural brokerage can be defined as the act whereby ideas and knowledge are transferred between different cultural groups – such as engineers and managers. In both these groups there might be people who are adept at understanding the discussions and values in the other group, and can work as a kind of cross-boundary translators. Such people are cultural brokers, and they are critical in engaging the full creative and innovative potential of an organisation. 

For managers, it would be far more valuable to support such cultural brokers than to try to hire ‘innovators’, simply because the former can take ideas from one group to the other, honing and developing throughout the process, and through this super-charge innovation. Rather than trying to connect to some imagined super-creatives, managers should make sure their internal communication is up to par, and incentivising those who can discuss across boundaries is a critical tactic. 

Have you identified your culture brokers? Have you ensured they have the resources they need to transmit and develop the ideas already in your organisation? If you haven’t, you’re not making the most of what you have – to the detriment of your company. So here’s to the culture brokers, the translators, the idea carriers. To me, they beat innovators any day of the week.

Alf Rehn is professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark, a keynote speaker and author of Innovation for the Fatigued

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