Top Ways to Drive Collective Innovation

"WorkingOne of the intentions of RMI’s Electricity Innovation Lab, or eLab, is to create a space for dialogue, collaboration, and innovation that recognizes and honors the complexity of the electricity system. This is difficult; many people, when confronted with a daunting problem, are numbed into inaction by the prospect of working on it.

In an earlier post, RMI Principal Lena Hansen described the challenge of transforming the U.S. electricity system and the complexities associated with it. Reos is partnering with RMI to design and run eLab, which kicks off this week in San Diego.

At Reos Partners, we help people address shared complex challenges. We’re focused on the question, “What does it take to address complex challenges that cross traditional boundaries?” As a global organization, Reos has worked intensively on that question for nearly ten years. By learning about and integrating many different practices—management theory, sociology, psychology, organizational development, the creative arts, traditional practices, design thinking and many other disciplines—we are building a mosaic of pieces and developing the connective tissue between them.

Over the years, what has become apparent is that there are a few key approaches that really make a big difference.

1. Think and Work in Terms of “Systems,” not “Parts”
Focus on understanding the complexity and systemic-nature of the situation. Be willing to continually refine that thinking as your understanding of the system is honed. To do that, you need to see through the lenses of different and diverse stakeholders. It’s critical, then, to identify and enroll the right team of people to work on the issue from the outset and ensure it as easy for them to participate, contribute, and co-create together.

2. Be Explicit About Desired Outcomes and the Process for Getting There
One of the benefits of thinking and working in terms of systems is that it becomes possible to discern where the “points of leverage” are—the places in the system where a given effort has maximum impact. Generally, when working on large complex issues it is useful to focus the early work on the points of leverage. This focus allows you to become clear about your objectives, constraints, and process. This clarity needs to be partnered with flexibility to adjust in response to feedback from the system.

3. Create a New “Space”
Creating the right type of space (both physical and emotional) has a huge impact on whether an initiative is successful in fostering real innovation and change. The space needs to actively support dialogue, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. It needs to be a space where experimentation and learning are encouraged, and where “failing forward and failing fast” drive creative and iterative processes.

4. Build New Skills and Capacities
Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “You can not solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it.” When bringing a diverse group of people together to work on a complex issue, it is necessary to build their individual and collective capacities to tackle a new kind of work. One of the biggest issues with solving problems that are new or intractable is that solutions cannot be directly drawn from past experiences. This new work centers around building shared insight and a commitment to shared action among people who are unlikely allies. Any process with a hope of meaningful impact has to build new capacities in individuals, teams, and the overall system. Work with your head, heart, and hands.

5. Be Patient and Plan for the Long Run
Ultimately changing complex systems and building new capacities takes time. Don’t use all your resources on planning or designing the first version.

How Does This Relate to the eLab?

RMI and Reos Partners started exploring the idea of eLab almost a year ago. These early conversations were used to set the broad direction and objectives of the initiative.

Next, we started engaging a broader audience, discussing in-depth the challenges and opportunities of transforming the electricity system with key stakeholders. Through this process we identified three key questions:

  • How can we understand and effectively communicate the costs and benefits of distributed resources as part of the electric grid?
  • How can we harmonize business models of utilities and distributed resource developers?
  • How can we accelerate the pace of economic distributed resource adoption?

This insight then helped us target which industry stakeholders should participate in eLab, and allowed the convening and fundraising work to begin in earnest.

Yesterday, eLab kicked off with a diverse team of people working across the spectrum of the electricity industry. By Thursday, we will have sketched out workplans for the coming months as we continue to evolve and develop eLab.

This is just the beginning, so stay tuned.

Dr. Joe McCarron is a partner with Reos Partners where he is focused on designing and creating actionable strategies that enable people develop a deeper understanding and commitment to change.  

Highlighted Resources



Introducing the Electricity Innovation Lab



 Learn More About RMI’s Approach to Transformation in the Electricity Sector




Read About One of the Six Key Drivers Leading to Electricity System Transformation




Reinventing the Grid