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SUMESH ARORA — Secrets to spreading innovative ideas



November was Innovation Month in Mississippi and there was a lot of buzz about new ideas, products and innovations among universities, schools, businesses and non-profit organizations.  A variety of innovation related activities provided a glimpse into our entrepreneurial, technology and creative economies. W should all be encouraged by the breadth of these activities.

Two of the signature events, namely the Conference on Technology Innovation (COTI) and TEDxJackson took place last week, which together were attended by nearly 600 people.  COTI is organized by Innovate Mississippi each year to showcase the latest entrepreneurial ventures, technology trends and manufacturing advances.  The premise of all TED talks is to introduce and disseminate “ideas worth spreading.”  The methods for spreading the ideas and increasing adoption of innovations are usually much more important than the innovations themselves.  Does anyone remember the General Motors EV1 from the late 1990’s?  Was it an electric vehicle before its time or GM failed to convey its benefits properly to the intended customers, or both?

In this column I examine the roles of individuals in spreading ideas.  The five distinct roles are:

» Thought (or Opinion) Leader

» Champion

» Change Agent

» Influencer

» Facilitator

These roles are derived from the theory of Diffusion of Innovations (DoI), which I have written about in my previous columns.  While some of the DoI research may seem intuitive, its application has to be deliberate, methodical and consistent in order to achieve the desired results.  It is also important to delineate between the roles of people spreading the innovation and the five categories of the people adopting the innovations commonly known as: Innovators, Early adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards.

According to its website, “TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.”  Putting that in context of the roles of individuals or organization as described by the DoI, you will see that the TED community encompasses all five categories of participants.

I have built a graphical model of how ideas spread from one level of individuals to the next which I call the Idea Multi-Level Marketing (i-MLM) model.  The dashed red circle signifies those physically attending the event or hearing the information first hand.  TEDxJackson had leaders in their respective fields talking about space exploration, building companies and intelligent communities, open data, archiving history, STEM education and Afro-Futurism.  In addition to several breakout sessions, COTI featured Polly Dement, author of Mississippi Entrepreneurs, as the keynote speaker, she shared anecdotes and words of wisdom from the many home-grown innovators featured in her book.  These thought leaders shared their life’s work and experiences with the audience members who in this case now have an obligation to serves as champions for taking these ideas and concepts to a larger group of people beyond the confines of the event venues.

I discuss the five different roles below in more detail.  Opinion leaders usually have a bully pulpit in spreading either positive or negative information about an innovation.  They typically have greater exposure to the mass media and have achieved higher socioeconomic status.  Early adopters may serve as opinion leaders, people whose advice and information about innovations is trusted in the community.  According to Dr. Everett M. Rogers, considered to be the father of the DoI theory, people earn opinion leadership not only by adopting a technology early, but also by appearing technically competent and socially accessible.   Other research finds that elites in organizations are often not innovators, and innovations may have to be introduced by outsiders and propagated up a hierarchy to the top decision makers via thought leaders and champions.

The champion plays a very important role in making the process of spreading the ideas more efficient by on one hand, they empower the thought leaders by providing them valuable feedback (see the green arrows in the picture) and on the other hand they can be the transformational leader, who gains support from other members of the organization to disseminate the ideas to co-workers, business associates, friends and family depending on the nature of the idea.  The adoption of an innovation by individuals in an organization is more likely if key individuals (champions) within the physical or electronic social networks are willing to support the innovation.

Every organizational change, whether large or small, requires one or more change agents.  A change agent is anyone who has the skill and power to stimulate, facilitate, and coordinate the change effort. Change agents may be either external (consultant) or internal (manager). The success of any change effort depends heavily on the quality and workability of the relationship between the change agent and the key decision makers within the organization.  The change agents need to have empathy towards their peers and fellow workers or family members and possess an ability to connect with them.  The tighter the linkage, the more likely the change agent will be successful.

The influencers may have a following of their own and have an ability to reach out to those in their circle of influence personally or through social media.  LinkedIn has individuals displayed as influencers in their ecosystem, but at a level where you have millions of followers, you are not only an influencer, but a thought leader, champion and change agent all wrapped in one.

The facilitators have a knack for pulling together cross-functional coalitions within the organization to support the efforts of the champions and the change agents.  They may never come in direct contact with the thought leaders but understand the purpose for innovation and are eager to be part of the change process.  Event organizers, an office administrative assistant or a parent may be viewed as a facilitator or enabler for spreading the ideas.

So weather you were a speaker, an attendee, an organizer or a volunteer at any innovation event, you are part of the Idea-Multi-Level Marketing (i-MLM) scheme if you will!  You have the responsibility of not only generating innovative ideas and concepts, but also sharing these ideas with others, by becoming champions for the causes you believe in and convincing your family members, friends, associates and co-workers to become change-agents who can reach out to those with a circle of influence to further share the know-how with the broader citizenry of Mississippi.  Seek the right facilitators and change agents and your ideas will spread.  Collectively we can be the tide that will lift all boats!

» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi.  His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development.  Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at sarora@innovate.ms with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.


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