By Anthony Ferrier
Chief Executive Officer
I have worked full time within the innovation space for a number of years. Long enough to know that as an established corporate competency, innovation has really only been around for the past eight years or so. Sure, there is always someone who will tell me that they were leading innovation efforts twenty-five years ago, but generally, as an actual driver of change within corporations, innovation is still a new and maturing endeavor.
And my, hasn’t innovation changed. When innovation first came to be of interest to corporate leaders, the focus was on so called “front end” efforts, which generally translated to idea generation or ideation. At the time, leaders thought that there were not enough good ideas within their business, which provided an explanation for why their organizations were not more innovative.
But anyone starting within the innovation space realizes pretty quickly that there is no shortage of great ideas out there. So the focus of thinking quickly shifted towards the “back end” of innovation, or how to implement those ideas. I can’t tell you how many presentations, working sessions and panel discussions I participated in that droned on and on about Stage Gate approaches, resource allocation processes and innovation SWOT teams to develop ideas. Well you know what? All that talk rarely achieved the ongoing driver of change that was promised.
So where are we at now? What is the current, latest thinking about developing new, value driven ideas, in an effective and consistent manner? In the past twelve months, the conversations at conferences and amongst senior innovation leaders have shifted dramatically. Previously, there were only minor conversations around broad employee engagement and cultural changes for large organizations. After all, the people working in the innovation space often had limited direct resources and were unable to even begin thinking about influencing far larger organizations. Their approaches often revolved around controlling efforts, limiting the chance of failure, managing stakeholders and addressing broader risk concerns.
But now, many innovators have had to revisit that approach. Leaders across a range of diverse but large and well-known organizations have realized that you need to consistently (that is an important clarifying point here) engage a broad range of employees to effectively develop and support new ideas. Using this approach is really the only way to generate scale and sustained impact for the development of ideas.
These leaders have realized that they don’t need to own the idea development process. Sure, they can set up and articulate an approach for developing ideas, but ownership is more fully spread across the organization. Employees are given the skills, ability and resources to develop ideas themselves. They are empowered to take action and drive results that will directly impact the organization.
I am not talking about empowering every single employee to foster innovation, by the way. If you are a Google, Amazon, or Facebook that makes perfect sense. Most organizations however, choose to focus on and encourage those employees that either see the development of innovative ideas as a way to improve their career, or those employees in influential or pivotal positions.
There are different models or approaches to employee engagement, including supporting intrapreneurs (I have written about this in the past here), or developing innovation employee networks (written about here). These can be titles such as [Insert company name] Innovation Catalysts / Champions / Ambassadors/ etc.. Whatever the name, the approach is to highly engage, empower and deploy a select group of employees to drive innovation within the organization.
Whether you use a network, or just a broader employee engagement approach, I am not talking about a “free for all.” Any efforts for employee engagement and empowerment should include points of control and tracking of idea development. These efforts should encourage employees with a sense of ownership for ideas and a sense of responsibility to their own career development to identify, select and build new ideas. When this occurs, innovation is not something owned by someone else within the business. It is not something they assume will be handled by a team in a distant corporate tower. That is the worst possible message that innovation leaders can drive into the organization, and guess what, they have been doing it for years. How many times have you seen innovation challenges that ask a question from a large audience, select a winner, thank everyone for their time and efforts, and then take that idea away to slowly wither away on the product or process development vine. This happens all the time.
Going down the path of engaging a broad range of employees is not a quick and easy solution. This in fact should be considered as a long-term, multi-year approach to building a more innovative organization. Accordingly, it is important to start relatively small, and build experience and success over time. Efforts need to be guided by both strategic and tactical plans that support program development and also help engage stakeholders over time.
This relatively new employee engagement approach to innovation development is the industry’s best bet to drive the long-term success for their organizations and the employees that work within them. Take a look at some more of my writings at www.culturevate.com to learn more about my thinking and approach.
About the Author
Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate empowering corporate employees to execute ideas and inspire innovative cultures. The organization offers innovation training (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash (Carnegie Mellon University); a SAAS-based portal of innovation materials, tools and templates; along with consulting focused on building employee engagement around innovation. Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, The Department of Veterans Affairs, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity Investments.