Do you have a green thumb? Enjoy a spot of backyard gardening? If so, then you’d know that as important as it is to start with quality, high yielding seeds, it’s clearly not enough. Firstly, you need the right soil, and that soil requires preparatory work in order to ensure that there is adequate nutrition and moisture. Even then, you’ll need the appropriate gardening tools, and you had better make sure that your seeds get enough water, sun, and additional nutrients.
Managing organizational innovation is surprisingly similar to gardening, and it’s not a coincidence that it borrows terms like Incubation and Hot-Housing from the farming lexicon. During my career as an innovation evangelist and organizational innovation consultant, I often, far too often, come across organizations that are so focused on obtaining these magical, high-yielding seeds, that they completely forget that they won’t grow in a desert. Embarking upon organizational innovation without a clear plan, a fertile innovation infrastructure, and the proper management will lead to innovation failure, or worse, to employees’ disillusionment and cynicism, but more of that later.
Need For Seed!
We know that quality ideas are necessary but not sufficient to ensure organizational innovation. So how do we generate original ideas relevant to the business and with the potential to create value for our organization? Well, here’s what we don’t do, we don’t hold a Brainstorming session. Brainstorming is by far one of the worst, most ineffective, and wasteful ways of generating ideas. Brainstorming perpetuates existing assumptions and paradigms and generates “more of the same” thinking. It favors the confident and loud, whilst intimidating the shy and thoughtful. It leads to groupthink and deference to authority figures. Worst of all, brainstorming assumes that the problem is obvious and known to all. Sometimes it even assumes that the resolution is already identified and that it is only the correct implementation of the solution that needs to be discovered.
So, I hear you ask, what’s the alternative? Well, there are a number of good Ideation alternatives, including the “Inside the Box” methodologies, also known as “Closed World Creativity”, developed by Professor Jacob Goldenberg, under whom I’ve had the privilege to study during my MBA. This approach begins with existing products and services and applies certain templates (Division, Subtraction, Multiplication, Attribute Dependence and Task Unification) to create ideas which address a need, are beneficial and feasible. Design Thinking is another wonderful tool. Developed by IDEO’s founder David M. Kelley, it avoids the Brainstorming pitfalls described above, by approaching the subject area without preconceptions, by leaving the confines of the office, and getting out into the field to understand the stakeholders, map their pain-points during the stakeholder’s journey, and generate original ideas to address them. Another advantage of Design Thinking is that it is an iterative process leading to a verified prototype, and not just an idea. Whilst there are additional effective ideation methods and techniques, these two are superior, proven alternatives to Brainstorming.
By the way, if you decide to raise ideas through an employee crowdsourcing campaign, make sure that your employees are familiar with at least some of the above methodologies. You can’t expect them to generate worthwhile ideas out of thin air, make sure they receive some basic ideation training and are skilled up for the task at hand.
Meanwhile, Back At The Farm
So, as we established above, to successfully create innovative change you need more than ideas, and you better not be relying on finding a creative genius or two. To ensure that the ideas generated bring value, you’ll need the entire organization involved. True innovation requires a combined top-down (senior management buy-in and strategic direction) and bottom-up (grass-root idea generation) approach. This includes a well-implemented innovation infrastructure; dedicated innovation managers; collaboration with partners and the academic community; and programs that promote, reward and recognize innovation across the organization.
The challenge is to create and maintain a culture of purpose-driven innovation within the organization, embedding innovation into the very DNA of the company, through a systematic and managed approach. Organizations can’t expect to succeed merely by passively investing in R&D or incubation labs, nor just by relying on M&A.
First, upper-management needs to really buy-in to innovation as a holistic and intensive process. A clear and well-communicated commitment to innovation by the C-level executives is an essential starting point. Likewise, their commitment to a bottom-up approach must be enabled through an organization-wide innovation infrastructure that is supported by programs that encourage, recognize and reward innovation.
Many people still confuse innovation management with R&D. Innovation management is not R&D, although it interfaces with it. Innovation management is multi-disciplinary. The innovation manager or team provide their services across the organization and must interface and collaborate with HR, OD, iComm (Internal Communication), Strategy, Product Management, Marketing and Legal, to name just some. The innovation manager or team need to create both company-wide and departmental (or LOB based) innovation plans and strategies. The output is not just new and improved products and services, it includes improved processes, new internal tools that increase productivity, improved customer service, and improved E-SAT and quality employee retention. The bottom line is that the innovation effort must deliver net value.
So what else do we need to do to ensure that our seeds are planted in the fertile ground? We will certainly want to make certain that we have an idea management system. Once, in the dark days before the omnipresence of the internet, ideas were handwritten on notebook pages and inserted into the office “Suggestion Box”. In many organization, this is still the case today, except that the box has been replaced with an firstname.lastname@example.org email address. Luckily, there is a plethora of Ideation Campaign Management systems on the market today. We will also want to ensure that we have an active innovation portal for providing employees with access and feedback to innovation initiatives, programs, training (including MOOCS), innovation news events, and celebration of successes.
Part of our infrastructure should include base-lining and periodic measurement of innovation KPIs. Once these KPIs were only innovation outputs, such as ROI and patents, today we understand that it is just as important to measure innovation inputs (such as innovation training offered) and metrics of the innovation process (such as employee collaboration and idea verification and prototyping). Last but not least, let’s not forget the importance of reward and recognition, especially recognition. Innovation provides employees with significant opportunities to stand out and shine. It also gives them a relatively safe environment in which to experience leading and being part of the creation of a start-up within the organization; it’s a powerful career multiplier.
From Seeds to Crops
Now that we’re happy with the quality of our seeds, and have planted them into our fertile earth. How do we grow them into valuable crops? One of the most common mistakes that organizations make, is failing to plan for the post ideation stage. Too often they neglect to allocate budget and resources for idea verification and prototyping and take far too long to green-light ideas. The innovation plan must take into account best practice methodologies for the post ideation phase. In fact, basic prototyping should already have taken place during ideation. The individuals or teams generating the ideas need to go beyond the idea and present a prototype, even if it is very simple. It can even be in the form of a storyboard or UX mockups. Here’s where Design Thinking once again proves its value, by including a phase for fast prototyping, internal verification, and re-prototyping. Too many times, I’ve seen great ideas dying a slow death due to a long and drawn-out verification and green-lighting process. By failing to take the winning ideas into incubation, the organization creates cynicism and negativity about innovation. This leads to poor and half-hearted participation in any subsequent innovation activities, and a culture where innovation is seen as corporate lip-service and not as a beneficial, positive value. This can be avoided by adopting an agile approach to verification. Instead of taking months, reaching green-light should take a day or two at most. By using an agile approach known as Hot-Housing, iterative creative sprints and design reviews with the relevant stakeholders will quickly result in key business decisions and priorities, approved prototypes, an understanding of system impacts, and the creation of high-level delivery estimates. Allowing the idea teams to spend one or two days out of their working week on creating a proper working prototype, can be achieved with a budget of two to three man-months. This will allow the winning teams to form branded internal start-ups and incubate the idea to a stage where it can be handed over to a product/delivery/implementation manager, depending on whether it is a product or an internal tool. Don’t forget to celebrate the internal start-ups’ success, showcase the teams and their prototypes to the rest of the company, reward and most importantly, imaginatively recognize the contribution these employees made to innovation in the organization.
In a Nutshell
In this article, I’ve focused the discussion on issues that must be addressed when running an ideation campaign. Specifically, the need to use innovation best practices, carefully plan and manage the process, and ensure that beyond generating worthwhile ideas, they are also verified, prototyped, and ultimately bring value to the organization and stakeholders. Creating an ongoing internal and collaborative innovation culture within the organization is much more than running an ideation campaign, but it’s a good starting point for organizations, and if done right, will inspire and raise confidence in ongoing innovation programs and activities.
Partner, Head of Innovation Practice