Nancy Napier: Build a permeable organization where ideas flow easily

Executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and InnovationMay 21, 2014 

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Nancy Napier

CARRIE QUINNEY — Boise State University

Years ago, I got interested in a tiny bit of geophysics. I was the outside observer of a Ph.D. dissertation defense. That means I kept the time clock and made sure the professors who were grilling the student didn't brow beat him too much. I understood the first hour of the presentation about bore holes and Fresnel waves and then, when they all spoke in math on the whiteboard, I zoned out. But before I did, I realized I'd learned something that could be useful for organizational leaders.

It turns out that two concepts in geology - porosity and permeability - may give leaders a way to understand how ideas may spread (or be hindered from spreading) throughout their organizations. Because I'm not a geologist and always need to think in very simple English, not math, I'll do the same here.

When the ground below us is porous, it has a lot of pockets or holes in it. Those pockets could be filled with water or air or oil or gas or something else. In a porous setting, though, the air or gas or water just sits in the pockets, and doesn't move from the pockets.

Permeability means that those pockets or holes underground are connected so that the water or gas or air can move or permeate from pocket to pocket. The greater or larger those connection pathways, the greater the flow of oil or water or whatever you've got in the pockets.

Now I'm not exactly sure what the benefits of porosity and permeability for geology may be (I can imagine but wouldn't dare to speculate out loud at this point), but I can certain see benefits of those concepts within an organization.

Many leaders talk about wanting an innovative culture, meaning they want ideas to grow and spread and be useful for the organization. So imagine your organization in our two favorite new geology terms. How porous and permeable is it? You may have pockets of ideas in lots of places (good porosity) but can they flow from unit to unit? If so, that means the permeability of ideas is good and ideas should be able to spread throughout the organization.

If you have low porosity, then you'd not have many pockets of ideas, which could really stump your innovative culture. And if those ideas and the people who have them are not spreading throughout the organization, that low permeability could also curtail chances for creativity and innovation to spread.

So next time you fret that your organization isn't generating new ideas or that "silos" are keeping them from moving around the organization, go outside and look at the ground and think about porosity and permeability. Then go back to the organization and start digging.

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