Speaking at Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Global Knowledge Management Leaders Meeting – September 13-17, 2010

I will be flying to NYC to speak at Parsons Brinckerhoff’s (PB) Global Knowledge Management Leaders Meeting. I have collaborated with PB since 2005. During this time, I have had the pleasure of seeing, influencing, and designing components of their knowledge management strategy. My presentation will focus on strategies for enhancing tacit knowledge transfer within engineering firms. Specifically, how do you design robust mechanisms and incentives to promote exchange of tacit knowledge across global and functional boundaries.

Communicating the Business Value of Innovation

Innovation depends upon consistent communication. Yet different stages of the innovation process require different kinds of communication. Companies who have recognized the different elements of the innovation process are able to target their communication mechanisms to encourage the strongest possible results from organizational innovation. Ideas can be brand new and relatively unconsidered or rather mature and half-implemented, and understanding clearly the distinctions between those types of ideas and communication mechanisms around them can inform organizations about how to best discuss and encourage innovation.

Consider the stage of idea generation and mobilization: One example of a company that has successfully created numerous channels for communication of ideas is Whirlpool. One strategy used by Whirlpool explicitly for idea generation was having an Innovation Team (people conversant with desired business goals and objectives as well as current operational capacities) go to each department and solicit ideas from employees. The Innovation Team included a cross-section of the company, including members from many functional areas and levels of hierarchy. During the idea collection process, all ideas were recorded and listened to without evaluation. By having a team composed of people from across the company and having that team travel to each department, normal rules of hierarchy and ordinary routines were disrupted sufficiently that employees could communicate without needing to find a way to communicate across the hierarchy.  Ethicon Endo-Surgery conducts team events encouraging cross-team functionality. For instance, the "battle of the masterminds" allowed employees to collaborate in teams to solve a particular problem. This may not necessarily be  a medical problem, but it instigates analytical thinking and cross-team collaboration.

Mars, the candy company, hosted a conference for its employees, and gave each one a nametag with RFID components that lit up when the employee was near someone they didn't know. Social networks were mapped out on a huge overhead projection that changed in real-time as employees met new people. This project was backed by social network analysis done with academic researchers, who interviewed employees to find out their current connections and devised this plan to increase the networking for the entire organization. The technique of social network analysis can provide a way for organizations to see whether or not collaboration across hierarchies and divisions is happening, and if so where--thus allowing them to analyze why. Social network analysis can illustrate pockets of communication that could be particularly ripe for idea generation. Peer-to-peer networks which have been derived from this concept  are deemed the best forms of communication are now getting popular day by day.

The next stage is the advocacy and screening of ideas. The joint processes of advocacy and screening involve the bubbling up of ideas and the filtering out of ideas into separate categories. Advocacy leads to increased communication about potential innovations, as well as encouraging the refinement of scope and intent of ideas. Screening is the process of identifying which ideas are suitable for development at a particular time, with particular capacities in mind. These two processes must occur together, as a communicative endeavor. At the end of this stage of the innovative process, high priority and high probability ideas have been identified. More extensive screening processes will also include categorization of ideas for the future, high-risk but high-gain ideas and ideas for mobilization.

Creating groups of advocates can be a challenging process. At Boeing, when executives decided to support radical process innovation they chose to create a specific team designed for the sole purpose of finding and advocating for big, radical innovations -- the group was called Phantom Works. The goal of Phantom Works was not to be the sole source of innovations, but to inspire change throughout the organization by asking questions, supporting ideas and demanding radical changes. In effect, Phantom Works is an advocacy group, supporting the idea generation and advocacy stages of the innovation process. Phantom Works also helped with communication between departments and sought ideas and technologies that could be applied in new areas of the organization. The creation of a business unit for purposes of radical innovation demonstrates organizational commitment as well as creating an advocacy body that can help incumbent organizations develop and sustain advocacy and idea generation.

These are just a few examples of how to communicate the business value of innovation. To learn more about how to communicate the business value of innovation within your organization, please contact me…

Understanding the barriers to communication in these discrete phases of the innovation process allows executives and organizations to make rational choices about what types of communication to pursue. These stages of innovation each have particular challenges, but anticipating those challenges and taking steps to minimize them can significantly increase the success of long-term innovation in an organization. When discussing the business value of innovation, organizations must be sensitive to the current stage of the innovation process. A newly hatched idea simply cannot be talked about in the same way as an idea that has passed through advocacy, screening and experimentation and is currently being mobilized for use in a new area of the organization. Innovations have differing levels of maturity, and communication must reflect those levels. Furthermore, creating an open and collaborative culture can assist communication at all levels of the innovation process.

On Questioning Questions in Organizations

Reflect on how much of your day is spent asking questions and answering questions. How many questions do you ask a day, what kinds of questions do you ask, and why do you ask the questions you do. Try having a conversation with a colleague, or a friend, without asking questions, how long might you go without asking a question? The simple answer: not too long. Questions, and questioning, make for an integral aspect of our lives. Yet, how many of us take the time to be mindful about the questions we ask and how we answer questions. Within organizations, the asking of, and responding to, questions, makes for a critical mechanism through which we elicit information and construct dialogues. Managers that ask good, and hard, questions of their employees in an efficient, and respectful, manner are respected by their employees. Conversely, managers who ask ‘dumb’ questions (yes, there are things like dumb and stupid questions), and do not following basic etiquette when doing so, are more likely to be dismissed by their employees as being incompetent. Similarly, employees are perceived as smart (or foolish) based on the questions they ask and their ability to respond to questions. For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the concept of questions and the mechanics of questioning.

Questioning plays a critical role in organizational discourse. We often hear statement such as: ask the hard questions, question the status-quo, or there is nothing like a stupid question, among others. These statements give lip service to the concept of questioning. Managers are some of the most poorly trained questioners. Students in disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and law, are explicitly taught how to question. Business students almost never examine the art, and science, of questioning in a thoughtful manner. As a result, one of the most cited reasons for organizational failures (such as corporate scandals or committing to a failed course of action), is the inability for those who were observing the disaster unfold to be courageous enough to ask the right questions (and seek appropriate answers). Just imagine what would happen if a psychologist did not ask questions appropriately or if your physician did not ask the right questions to diagnose ailments. Would we tolerate this level of incompetency? Probably not!

Organizations need to urgently embrace the art and science of questioning. I believe that organizations will be healthier if individuals knew how to ask the ‘right’ questions and how to respond to questions. Being deliberate about the concept of questioning will lead to organizations expelling less effort in achieving their goals and objectives. I am currently beginning to write a few articles on questioning. While most of my writing will be for a business (management) audience, they are relevant to fields such as engineering, new product development, and education, among others. I want to encourage all readers to share their experiences with me on the topic. What do you think about questioning? How do you differentiate a good question from a bad one? What kinds of questions do you ask and why? Do you know of people who ask the ‘right’ questions, if so, why do you think they are successful in asking questions? These are just some of the questions that I would love to get answers to. If you have other reactions to the issue of questioning, please do share them with me.

If you would like me to come to your organization and conduct a workshop on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee that if your organization gets smarter at the art and science of questioning, it will be a more ‘intelligent’ and ‘mindful’ place.

Rewards for Idea Generation and Mobilization: Good/Bad Idea?

A question that I often get from managers and senior executives is should the organization provide rewards to encourage idea generation and mobilization?

I have seen a wide array of tactics deployed to encourage idea generation and mobilization. In my forthcoming book, Intrapreneurship, I explore how leading organizations foster entrepreneurship by employees by enabling them to leverage their ideas. In this blog post, I draw on material that I put together for my book to answer the question of whether rewards should be given for idea generation and mobilization.

I believe that no rewards should be given for the generation of new ideas. By rewards, I am referring to extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, American Express gift cards, or even recognition as “Idea Generator of the Month.” In my experience, extrinsic rewards do not work because they set the wrong precedence and can be easily gamed. Employees should not be rewarded for a required activity (you do not reward employees for coming to work on time!). Contributing ideas needs to become second nature and part of the work fabric, and employees should not be rewarded for the same reason that they are not rewarded for carrying out their regular job responsibilities. I might even suggest that for those employees who do not contribute ideas, disincentives and negative reinforcement be used. Similarly, managers who do not foster employee creativity and build a constructive environment should be coached or moved out of their management position.

The other reason that I think rewards do not work for idea generation is simply that they can be gamed. For example, when a reward is given for the most ideas submitted, employees might submit a large number of low quality ideas in order to get a reward. Here, you may get employees contributing worthless ideas in order to get gift cards or to get a leg up on their peers. This may have the opposite of the desired impact, as Alcatrel-Lucent discovered. They offered new car for best idea for part of a “Stretch Your Mind" event. As Guido Petit, senior director at Alcatrel-Lucent commented, “It was a big event, but a bad practice…It created more negative energy than positive energy because there was one happy person and 149 unhappy people…And although the contest tripled the ideas generated, none of them became products.”[1]

I do believe that rewards play a vital role in fostering the mobility of ideas. Employees who take time out of their schedules to communicate ideas to their peers need to be rewarded. Simply put, this behavior is not natural and cannot be expected. Moreover, employees’ actions to look beyond their own interests and collaborate with their peers needs to be recognized and rewarded. In some organizations, employees are polled regularly for the names of the people from whom they received the most ideas and the most valuable ideas, and asked to describe how they furthered the idea. The employees then write a personal letter of thanks and appreciatio,n which goes a long way in showing their gratitude. In some cases rewards will be given across departments, where one department will use part of its budget to reward an employee in another unit who has helped the department with its ideas. Such peer-to-peer recognition of the value of idea mobilization is energetic and vital.

A case in point: Whirlpool convened a research team in the Alps for the sole purpose of creating exciting new products, but the team returned with only non-starters. David R. Whitwam, Whirlpool’s recently retired CEO, didn't give up. Instead, he decided innovation could occur along with normal work, with every employee’s contribution. The first successful step towards an innovative scale-up was convening an Innovation Team to examine every department and ask employees for ideas—and no idea was outrightly rejected.[2] The team included employees from almost all departments and almost all functional areas.[3] They created a screening process to review every idea, focusing on customer needs, not existing technology or skills.[4] Every idea was graded and recorded. The review board persists as a crucial component of the innovative effort, and is still in place to this day. The grading scheme focused on customer needs and Whirlpool core competencies to maximize the possibility of finding the very best ideas.[5] Quickly, Whirlpool created internal courses on innovation which focused on two components of creating good ideas: product development skills (such as emphasizing customer needs) and venture capital skills (such as marketing and implementation concerns).[6] Whitwam demanded that employees come to him with ideas—any ideas—if their managers won’t listen.

Those who complete the company’s internal course on innovation skills (a five and a half day process) and then oversee the generation and advocacy of a few products can become I-mentors, or Innovation Mentors.[7] These mentors are key figures in the Whirlpool innovation process because they serve as innovation managers: their role is not to control or oversee, but to support and advocate for those with ideas, and to connect ideas with departments or people who might benefit from them.[8],[9] Mentors nurture the beginning stages of innovation. The role of mentors is not limited to seeking ideas, but also includes actively generating them. I-mentors lead team meetings in which employees reflect on customer knowledge, business trends and their own experiences, and “insights” are developed and recorded.

Whirlpool supports employees who act like entrepreneurs, and funds their ideas, not just by providing time, but also investing in employee business notions and allowing them to open businesses within the organization.[10] For instance, one employee, Josh Gitlin,  dreamt up in-home cooking classes across the country, using Whirlpool’s KitchenAid® line as well as other Whirlpool products. The generous budget for innovations also has a carrot for managers: managers’ pay is linked to revenue derived from new products and services.


[1] Dutton, G. "Innovation Acceleration." Training, January 15, 2010.

[2] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[3] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[4] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[5] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[6] Dolezalek, H. “Imagination Station.” Training 40, no. 6 (2003): 14.

[7] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[8] Melymuka, K. “Innovation Democracy.” Computerworld 38, no. 7 (2004): 31-2.

[9] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[10] Arndt, M. (2002) “Whirlpool taps its inner entrepreneur.” Business Week Online, Feb. 7, 2002.

Consulting and Advisory Services

I have updated the Consulting page on my website. Consulting engagements I offer range in scope from single-day senior executive briefings to small-term strategic project assignments. Here are some of the most common offerings:

Executive Strategic Planning Retreats: Working closely with the client, Kevin scopes out a keynote presentation followed by a workshop. The day begins with the keynote and a thought provoking discussion. The workshop can be used to facilitate corporate strategic planning and design, forecasting and planning for future trends that impact the business, or brainstorming and consensus building. Past retreats have focused on strategic innovation, designing collaborative alliances for organizational resiliency, and building crisis detection and response programs.

Strategic Advising and Consulting: These short-term engagements allow Kevin to work intimately with the client on focused areas of strategic opportunities and challenges. Advising and consulting projects range from strategizing knowledge management and innovation endeavors to technology management projects and competitive intelligence assignments. Past engagements have included advising a major engineering firm on designing a knowledge management program, reviewing business plans and specifications for products of a major technology organization, and serving as a senior adviser for market and customer intelligence projects.

Ideation and Commercialization: This unique offering by Kevin is centered on helping entities leverage their ideas. Kevin works with entities ranging from individual executives in leading organizations, to technology start-up firms, to independent thinkers (e.g., scientists, bloggers, and product designers). The focus is to help entities manage their ideas optimally for goal attainment. Past engagements include working with senior executives to publish their ideas in mainstream journals or books and helping technology start-ups formulate key strategic alliances.