Language and Leadership: Applying IBM’s ‘Innovation Jam’ to your corp comms strategy 

Internal communications leaders can help create and shape strategy and innovation by leveraging the talents and insights of their workforces.

Douglass Hatcher is president and co-founder of communicate4IMPACT, a business storytelling training and coaching consultancy. Douglass is a former speechwriter to several global CEOs and a United States Senator.

Developing a new strategy can be a huge challenge for even the most seasoned corporate and organizational leaders. But what if the next turn in your organization’s strategy is hiding in plain sight?

Getting an organization’s strategy has never been more mission-critical than it is right now. Strategy dictates what an organization does and doesn’t do daily. It dictates what an organization says and doesn’t say as well. Given the warp-speed demands of both the marketplace and the 24-hour news cycle, strategic action and messaging can have positive and negative implications for a company’s reputation and business.

Strategic alignment is equally critical up and down the chain and across the enterprise. Crafting the right strategy allows leaders to take things off the table that don’t align, which frees up time, energy, and resources to double down on those things that do. Strategy is a master key to unlocking and unleashing a company’s true potential.

IBM’s Innovation Jam

Despite the challenges posed by both strategic development and alignment, there’s a highly successful template for developing a strategy by tapping into workforce talents and insights that’s worth considering. It’s a strategy that IBM fostered and used to great effect in the early 2000s. The template was called an Innovation Jam.

According to an MIT Sloan Review 2008 study, the Innovation Jam involved 150,000 IBM employees, family members, business partners, clients (from 67 companies), and university researchers from 104 countries. The purpose of the Jam was to brainstorm next generation ideas and initiatives internally. The Jam provided a mechanism to help make that happen by allowing all of these participants to have their voices heard and their ideas considered. The event was a huge undertaking, but it was worth the effort — the  2006 Jam produced 10 new business lines and ultimately a key strategic initiative called Smarter Planet.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that IBM had been conducting these Jams for several years prior to 2008 and that IBM already had the infrastructure, leadership, experience, protocols, and know-how to corral a huge workforce into workstreams and information flows that maximized everyone’s talent, energy, and time.

What the Jam can mean for you

What can a nearly two-decade-old experiment by a large global multinational mean for other organizations of all shapes and sizes, especially at a time of such massive change, disruption, and uncertainty?

First, it can help you understand how creating internal communication channels for genuine engagement creates opportunities for identifying and surfacing opportunities, gaps, and obstacles. Good communication can unearth helpful trends or pieces of information that may otherwise simply go unnoticed.

Second, it fosters a structured environment for engagement that helps ensure that employees feel heard, seen, valued, and respected — which  can help drive productivity, revenue, and brand reputation.

Third, engagement can help flatten your organization, if the communications are happening, not only at the same or similar hierarchical level but up and down the chain as well. In the IBM example, then-CEO Sam Palmisano made it a priority to engage IBMers at all levels during Innovation Jams.

Next steps

How can you make IBM’s experience in the early 2000s actionable for you and your team or organization?

Begin by conducting an internal communications survey to gauge how well your enterprise is communicating within teams and across functions. Here are some high-level, sample question ideas to help get you started:

  • On a scale of 1-5, how well do you feel your team collaborates with other teams/departments to achieve company goals?
  • How often does your team interact with other teams/departments?
    • Daily, weekly, monthly, rarely?
  • How would you rate the quality of communication between your team and other teams/departments?
    • Excellent, good, fair, poor?
  • How easy or difficult is it for you to get information from other teams/departments when you need it?
    • Very easy, somewhat easy, neither easy nor difficult, somewhat difficult, very difficult.
  • How well do you feel other teams understand your team’s roles and responsibilities?
    • Extremely well, very well, moderately well, slightly well, not well at all.
  • What areas or issues regularly cause communication challenges between your team and others? Be specific.
  • What would help improve communication between your team and other teams at our company?
  • Do you feel there are silos or lack of alignment between departments? To what extent?

IBM’s Innovation Jam was the culmination of several years’ worth of employee engagement which laid the groundwork for successful internal communications and ultimately for the beginnings of Smarter Planet.

But the real triumph wasn’t only a new strategy and new business lines — it was IBM’s ability to leverage the talents, energies, and insights of its own employees as well as family members and clients at scale in a way that helped the business and the brand.

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