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Building a sustainable innovation community is essential for every collaborative innovation program. Doing that is, however, not as easy as one may think.

The typical approach to that is to launch a marketing campaign with e-mails, posters, videos, public announcements etc. in order to raise awareness, inform and motivate everyone to join in. Especially in companies with a history of failure of such or similar corporate initiatives, it is difficult to reach the people, build trust and drive the desired behaviours. Since the participation and collaboration in innovation programs is voluntarily and competes with people’s day jobs, they need to get convinced that their participation is worth spending the time. Instilling this trust and engaging them can be difficult, as people’s opinions and attitudes are largely influenced by their peers of various groups that every human is part of. It is important to understand these influencing factors in more detail, in order to keep control of the development of your innovation community.

Informal Groups

In private life people belong to families, cliques, clubs, political parties or other kind of interest groups. In hierarchical organizations, employees usually have their seat in a certain team or department. Besides that, they may also be part of task forces, project teams, committees, or other cross-hierarchical groups. These groups are formalized networks of people, as they are designed and managed by the organization. However, there are also other, self-generated networks in organizations which are under much less control of the top: informal clusters of employees that are connected through common expertise, interests, hobbies, attitudes or other characteristics, which do not necessarily have to do directly with their job. These hidden clusters live outside the organisation chart are therefore hard to control. They may appear as a group of colleagues that is regularly meeting for coffee breaks or as a self-created online community that is communicating via email, messengers or social networks.


These self-generated groups normally emerge from first being an invisible flock of individuals that are weakly tied to each other. As the ties become stronger over time, the individuals start behaving as a more visibly cohesive group. Although these clusters do initially not have any official hierarchies and common guidelines, the more cohesive the group becomes the more it gets infected by a psychological phenomenon: groupthink.

Groupthink was first described by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. He defines it as the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups. Peer pressure, as well as pressure from those in authority (if present in the group), leads dissenting individuals to change their minds and, perhaps as important, not to share their own knowledge and opinion. The growing cohesiveness of a group also comes along with a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Thinking “outside-the-box”  is getting difficult if one is heavily influence by everyone else sitting in the same box.

What implication does that have on building innovation communities?

When selecting the audience that you want to address with your innovation program or a specific campaign, make sure to have participants from different groups. This increases the chance to get some fresh ideas and insights, as people from other clusters are sitting “outside of your box” and are not influenced by your cluster’s groupthink.

Especially when you are still in the phase of rolling out your innovation program across your company or your network of external parties, make sure to have a good mix of newcomers and former participants. Newcomers will see what’s going on at the platform, that people are actually using it and how they participate. This helps the newer ones to overcome their resistance to participate and they will adopt the behaviors of the active community.

Group leaders

As much as groups tend to form a mutual opinion over time which is not officially stated, but becomes common sense, different roles emerge in the group. This is mainly due to different personality types of the members. Some people always speak up in a group and don’t hesitate to share their opinion and knowledge, while others are reluctant to raise their voice. The former are typically the ones that emerge as unofficial group leaders. Due to the phenomenon of groupthink, these extroverts are also the ones that mostly influence the group’s opinion, attitudes and resulting behaviors.

What implication does that have on building innovation communities?

These unofficial group leaders can catalyze behaviors and attitudes and infect other members with their opinion. By sharing their enthusiasm, on the one hand, they can motivate other group members to think positively of the program and participate actively. On the other hand, however, a sceptical group leader will also spread his negative opinion across the group and demotivate others to join in.

These opinion leaders therefore need to be identified and won over to act as supporters for your collaborative innovation program. This is especially important when the leading figures in the group are sceptics or even antipodes towards innovation, as they may disrupt your efforts to build up an innovation community.


Because of their extrovert personality, group leaders are at the same time also typically the ones that are best connected and therefore act as “hubs”. As Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, a pioneer in the field of network theory found and described in his book “Linked: The New Science of Networks”, the distribution of links in social networks is unbalanced: Few people - the hubs -  have lots of connections, but most people have comparatively few connections. It follows a logarithmic power law (“head” and “long tail”). Every connection in these social networks is of course not equally strong. People have stronger ties to some with whom they are close with (i.e. peers in the same self-organized or formal groups) and weak ties to people they know, but don’t interact with on a regular basis. Although one may think that the weak ties are less valuable than the strong ones, the opposite is true: Early works by Granovetter and many others have shown that your weak ties are often the more valuable connections. This is because they offer links to other groups and therefore to people which are not affected by the groupthink of a strongly tied network of people.

What implication does that have on building innovation communities?

In order to grow your innovation communities effectively, it is important to get the hubs on board, i.e. the people which are not only connected strongly within their group, but who also have many weaker ties to hubs of other groups. These highly connected people are the linchpins for growing an innovation community. Instead of trying to motivate every individual in your organization to join in, focus your efforts on identifying these hubs, motivating them and make them become innovation advocates that help you grow your innovation community. If they have a positive attitude towards your innovation program, they are likely to pass that on to others.

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Christoph Sohn

Christoph Sohn

Christoph is part of HYPE’s Enterprise Innovation Consulting Team where he advises and trains organizations on establishing the right processes and culture for their collaborative innovation programs.