Optimizing Idea Generation for Innovation

I have spent the last few days meeting a number of executives from technology giants like Microsoft, to smaller, yet highly innovative firms, such as biomedical research institutes. During my meetings, I engaged in very interesting conversations, most of which centered around helping organizations design sustainable innovation programs. A key question that kept coming up is how organizations should get their employees to be more effective, and efficient, in generating ideas that can advance the business cause.

One challenge for organizations is directing their employees’ energy toward spaces that need ideas. Deciding whether the focus is domain-specific (perhaps limited to engineering, sales, or accounting), or cross-domain is a first step. Another option is identifying the future areas that an organization would like to enter. For example, if the organization is thinking of entering a foreign market, it should solicit ideas about entry strategies, clients to work with, and finding the markets that are ripe for investment. The ideal organization will update its focus areas on a regular basis as conditions in its internal and external environments change. Of A.G. Laughley’s leadership at Proctor & Gamble, Tim Brown comments “He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they've got the right idea or not.”[1]

In addition, the organization should appoint key personnel to govern the ideas being generated in each area. These individuals can serve the role of contact points for employees who would like to submit ideas. They can also champion the focus areas and develop specific guidelines on how to submit ideas, specify what kinds of ideas are needed, and determine how ideas will be evaluated when submitted. The contact personnel is also important in transferring ideas between domains.  An idea submitted to one focus area may be more suitable for another one. In addition, there might be opportunities that are submitted in one domain which should be pursued as cross-domain collaborations. For example, CEMEX, the highly innovative cement manufacturer, has an Innovation committee composed of three directors, three VP’s, and one outside consultant. The team is responsible for defining the broad themes for innovation and structure for the innovation process.  Often, the committee considers strategic areas that are outside of the core product; recent focus areas included “integrated construction solutions for affordable housing, ways to support regional development, and making it easier for customers to do business with CEMEX.”[2]

Once focus areas are defined, it is equally important to communicate them to employees and inform employees across the hierarchical levels and functional divisions that they may contribute to these focus areas. It should be clear to employees that the work they do on a daily basis is related to at least one of the focus areas. Some organizations erroneously think that their mission statements are the best guide to how employees should focus their idea-creating. But if you asked a sample of employees in your organization to repeat the mission statement, by my estimates, less than15% would be able to give you a half-baked recital. Most employees do not see the relevance of these glorified statements as they have not been translated into terms that matter to their daily work. One useful strategy that I have seen work is to build archetypes that resonate with employees of what an idea contribution might look like in each of the focus areas.

To learn more about how to design innovation programs at your organization, or to optimize your current innovation processes, please send me an email.


[1] Brown, T. (2009, October 24). Corner Office: He Prizes Questions More Than Answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from Interview by Adam Bryant of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/business/25corner.html

[2] Sull, D. N., Ruelas-Gossi, A., & Escobari, M. (2004, January 26). What Developing-World Companies Teach Us About Innovation. Retrieved March 2010, 22, from HBS Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3866.html

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