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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

Reversing the Brain Drain: Global Knowledge Flows

Finally, we are beginning to see more widespread acknowledgement of the reverse brain drain! For the last few years, I have counseled my graduate students to seek opportunities outside the US. Employment prospects outside the US continue to be, on average, more interesting, challenging, and attractive. Graduate students who want to succeed globally need to take the time to expand their global horizons, seek out cultural immersion experiences, and learn foreign languages. Having traveled to India twice in the last three years, I continue to be amazed by the rate of economic growth and the development of the entreprenueiral spirit. Innovators are flocking to India for the simple reason that you have a highly-skilled knowlege workforce that can be deployed on a global stage. One must acknowledge that India has challenges, but these challenges, in my opinion, will get addressed in due time.

P.S. A few years back, Roberto Evaristo and I wrote a paper on global knowledge management strategies. The paper documented the three most dominant strategies employed by organizations to foster knowledge flows across their global operations. It may be time to revise the paper!

Speaking at Bangkok University on Designing the Innovation Process

I will be giving a talk at Bangkok University (Kluaynamthai Campus) on designing organizational innovation processes. The talk is organized by Institute for Knowledge and Innovation South-East Asia (IKI-SEA) as part of their KM World Seminar Series and will take place on October 28, 2010 from 1.30 PM to 4:00 PM. Please click here to download the flyer.

Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects

Sandeep Purao and I have a paper accepted at the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in the Electronic Government Track (Development Methods for Electronic Government, Minitrack). The paper analyzes the IRS’s Business Systems Modernization Project using sentiment analysis.

Abstract
We describe results from historical analysis of a large-scale, public sector effort: the IRS Modernization Project that has already spanned a decade and consumed more than 3 billion dollars. The results focus on analysis of Sentiments and Confidence expressed by different stakeholders, as found in various documents. We explore how such analyses may provide a window on project progress and potential early clues that may contribute to preventing undesirable outcomes in the future.

Reference: Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects: A Case Study,” In Proceedings of the Forty-Forth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-44), Los Alamos, CA: IEEE Press, Kauai, HI, (January 4-7, 2011).

Large IT Projects as Interventions in Digital Ecosystems

Sandeep Purao (IST, Penn State University) and I have a paper accepted for presentation at the International ACM Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (MEDES’10) (BangkokThailand).

Abstract: Large IT projects, such as the US Government’s Internal Revenue Service Business Modernization Effort, can take a decade or more and consume billions of dollars. Traditional approaches to the study of such projects emphasize concerns such as requirements monitoring, progress tracking and risk mitigation. We propose an alternative approach guided by a digital ecosystems view instead of a hierarchical, decision-oriented view. We argue that this perspective is more suited to understand how such projects evolve and cause changes in the underlying digital ecosystem characterized by not only the IT infrastructure but also the transactional relationships among stakeholders. We illustrate our arguments by drawing on an archaeological case study of the IRS effort, and discuss implications of the digital ecosystem perspective for the study of large IT projects.

Reference: Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “Large IT Projects as Interventions in Digital Ecosystems,” In Proceedings of the International ACM Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (MEDES'10), Bangkok, Thailand (October 26-29. 2010).

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.

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.

Questioning: A Lost Capability among Executives

This blog post is not meant for those who are content to let their $110,000 MBA diploma hang on the wall as an indication of a job well done.  Nor is it designed for those persons who feel that now that their education is complete, they have all the necessary tools for success.  I encourage managers and executives to read and participate in this posting if they feel that there is a next step in the educational process...one that is more critical to success than showing off that graduation tie!

We are bombarded with information at a near constant rate. Managers face information overload challenges at their organizations.  They have to contend with information that is emitted from a wide assortment of agents and objects, and this information might arrive through various information channels and devices. Consequently, it is impossible to inspect and process all the information one receives. Some information nuggets receive attention and are carefully considered, while other nuggets might get lost (or are even purposely ignored), and yet others, might be acted on without enough consideration.

What is troubling to me is how frequently managers assume that information that stems from the external world is right or appropriate for their organizations. Often this gets exhibited as follows: a manager gets his recent issue of Harvard Business Review and skims through it during a business trip (of course, only after the manager has exhausted the batteries on the laptop). The manager reads a few articles, finds one or more them to be interesting, and then without much questioning begins to think about how to duplicate practices or approaches described in their own organization. Most managers take a lazy approach when it comes to evaluation of information from external sources. Consider the last time that you really took the time to evaluate information coming from an external source (e.g. a consultant or a recently released business book that touts the next buzzword) with the same amount of care as information that comes from your direct reports. Much of this lazy approach, in my opinion, can be linked to the MBA mills. During MBA programs, degree candidates are rushed through the fundamentals of accounting and finance, given tours of the latest practices in human resource management and information systems, and spend their time working through team and trust building exercises. These are all nice, but do not teach managers the art and science of questioning. Moreover, in some course and management approaches, questioning, especially, the questioning of authorities and authoritative sources is frowned upon. This is common in disciplines such as accounting and finance, where students are made to drink from the fire hose in terms of the terminology and techniques. Student learn to marvel at external information, especially information published in the so-called authoritative sources, rather than to critically evaluate it.

Most managers with whom I speak admit that they have a long way to go in terms of harnessing their questioning capabilities. Key aspects of a questioning capability include:

1.      Knowing how to develop questions for a given context

2.      Knowing when to ask questions

3.      Knowing how to evaluate and process answers to questions

4.      Knowing how to develop an effective, and efficient, questioning process that is refined, and optimized, on a regular basis

Being busy, or overworked, or just being fearful of consequences, are not legitimate reasons for questioning. To retain the human and intelligent aspects of organizations, one must question. Questioning prompts us to seek clarification, act intelligently and mindfully, and promotes constructive discourse.

I would like to hear your thoughts on questioning. Do you ask difficult questions of external information? What are some reasons why you are less critical of information that come from external versus internal sources? What challenges do you face in terms of asking difficult questions? Do you think questioning is a lost capability within current enterprises?

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.