Successful organizations are not afraid to ideate and experiment. Bold devotion to these principles catalyzes breakthroughs.

Take scientists Seth Cooper and Adrien Treulle. Several years ago they were trying to tackle a biochemistry problem known as protein folding. Proteins consist of complex chains of smaller amino acid molecules, which assemble in three-dimensional shapes. The configurations determine how they interact with other proteins and function in living cells. Scientists have struggled to discover how these amino acids fold into the protein structures found in nature.

Deploying algorithms to solve the folding problem takes lots of computing power with results that are often disappointing. So Cooper and Treulle decided to merge raw computing with the human penchant for problem solving. The result: Foldit, a crowd-sourcing game where players manipulate a partially folded protein generated by an algorithm into a stable structure.

Gaming the System

In 2011, Foldit players successfully deciphered the structure of a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys. Biochemists had been wrestling with it for 10 years. Foldit players conquered it in three weeks. Last August, players joined the fight against the Ebola virus.

But here’s the oddest peculiarity: The best Foldit players have no biochemistry background. In fact, the No. 1 player is a young female administrative worker who has a passion for taking messy proteins and nipping and tucking them into beautiful, streamlined structures. Humans possess an irrepressible knack for formulating ideas, testing them, and generating results, it seems.

Innovation isn’t Voodoo

Do organizations take advantage of this? Not to the level they should, apparently. According to a recent study by IBM, there is a persistent gap between organizational leaders’ desire to drive innovation and their adoption of the necessary requirements. Dubbed “More than Magic: How the Most Successful Organizations Innovate,” the study found that most organizational leaders fail to encourage experimentation and have a limited tolerance of failure.

Top-performing enterprises are disrupting the innovation process itself. They eschew the cloistered cultures of the past, often found in labs or R&D facilities. They pry open the process, collaborating directly with customers and suppliers to create an innovation ecosystem. Think of it as a value chain of cocreate, codesign, coproduce, comarket, and codistribute.

Outperformers do four things: establish a mandate for innovation; build organizational structures that encourage innovation; create cultures that foster innovation; and design processes that enable innovation. To drive these structural components, they not only align innovation with business goals, they also create specialized teams to drive focus and create innovation-funding streams to protect these teams from quarterly budgeting decisions.

Relentless Catalyzing

The best performing organizations also use rigorous quantitative metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of the company’s innovation thrust. In short, top performing innovators create new streams of business value that are resilient.

The IBM study highlights the importance of the Insigniam strategy of elevating the capacity for creativity. Organizations can foster creativity by developing cultures that nourish creativity and let the rank and file recover their creative capabilities brilliantly captured by Foldit phenomenon.

Innovation isn’t magic. It’s the systematic discipline of harnessing collaboration, data, analytic processes, and insight. It’s the art and science of anticipating the future. And that’s the real magic.

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