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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?

Speaking at Microsoft: Intranets for Collaborative Innovation: From Failed Promises to Emerging Potential: April 29, 2010

I will be giving a talk to Microsoft’s Enterprise Content Management team on the role of Intranets in fostering collaborative innovation. Since their initial debut, Intranets have been touted as a platform to promote collaboration within an organization. Most organizations have invested serious resources in developing viable Intranets. Despite the significant investments, only a handful of organizations will claim that their Intranets are anything more than glorified document repositories. In this talk, I highlight key reasons that Intranets have failed to deliver on their original promises. I will also point out how users have had to build work-a-rounds to avoid interacting with Intranets when engaging in collaborative work. My talk will conclude with key recommendations for designers of next generation Intranets that can support collaborative innovation.

Building Sustainable Collaborative and Open Innovation Programs – University of Ljubljana

I will be giving an invited lecture at the Raziskovalni center Ekonomske fakultete (Faculty of Economics) of the University of Ljubljana on February 15, 2010. My talk will focus on how organizations can design collaborative innovation programs.

Organizations cannot innovate in isolation. Ideas, knowledge, expertise, and processes needed for innovation are often distributed in the marketplace across a wide-assortment of actors from business partners, to customers, government agencies, and even competitors. Organizations have to find ways to collaborate and develop open, rather than closed, innovation programs. Collaboration calls for the ability to share required artifacts from ideas to knowledge and expertise, and even processes, with external entities. Being open requires an organization to unlock, and make available, its innovation process to external entities. Developing Collaborative and Open Innovation (COI) programs can be a daunting challenge. Issues such as ensuring trust, governance structures, rewards and incentives, and mechanisms for rent sharing from innovations can seem insurmountable. In this presentation, I will share actionable knowledge on how we can build sustainable COI programs. I will draw on research and consulting on designing organizational innovation programs in over 50 global organizations. I will share a framework for organizations that want to collaborate on innovation. This framework will outline methods for collaborative idea generation and mobilization, idea advocacy and screening, idea experimentation, idea commercialization, and idea diffusion and implementation. Examples will be used to illustrate how leading organizations collaborate with external entities for innovation and build open innovation programs that external entities can plug-into.

Building the UW X-Prize Lab

Along with Ann Bostrom and Sandy Archibald, I am developing the X-Prize Lab at UW. Our initial plan is to offer two courses through the Evans School of Public Affairs. The first course will examine prize-driven innovation. We have an assembled an amazing list of speakers, see our blog. In this course leading innovators and philanthropists will introduce the how prize philanthropy can foster innovation to solve global developmental challenges. The second course will focus on building prize concepts and proposals that solve complex policy challenges from water resource management to education.

To see the news release from the Evans School, please click here [LINK]
To learn more about the X-Prize Foundation, please click here [LINK]

What do you mean by a “good idea”?

Here is a simple exercise: Find 20 people in your organization. Ideally, choose people across the various hierarchical levels and functional departments of your organization. Ask each person two questions: How would you define a good idea? How do you recognize a good idea? Chances are high that if you work in a typical organization, you will arrive at 20 different answers! Some individuals may not even be able to articulate what is a good idea or to clearly describe how to recognize good ideas. Is this a problem? You bet it is! One of the major challenges faced by organizations as they try to come up with good ideas is the lack of a definition of what constitutes a good idea. It is common to find organizations that take the stance that a good idea is in the eye of the beholder, or in contrast, that a good idea is like pornography, you will recognize it when you see it. Similarly, most organizations lack a clearly defined process on how to recognize good ideas. As one manager put it, “employees may not recognize a good idea if it smacked them right on their faces.”

The organization that wants to foster a spirit of intrapreneurship must: 1) clearly define what is, and what is not, an idea, 2) arrive at a typology for the various types of ideas, 3) articulate a process for refining thoughts into ideas and then into ‘good’ ideas, 4) reward employees for sharing ‘good’ ideas, and 5) reward employees who serve as brokers (or intermediaries) for mobilizing ideas from one corner of the organization to the next.

What are some practices that your organization has in place to address these issues?

For more details, please stay tuned for my new book on intrapreneurship…or drop me an email!

Advocating and Screening for Ideas

If you have ideas, what should you do with them? How do you know which ideas to pursue (and which to abandon)? As an idea creator, how do you know which ideas will get the attention of managers or how to present ideas for consideration? As a manager, how do you screen the numerous ideas you get from your staff? These are not simple questions to answer. Unfortunately, this stage of the intrapreneurship process represents the Achilles' heel for most organizations. Too many organizations spend a lot of time, effort, and resources to get ideas from their employees but then do not know what to do with them. Equally discomforting are cases where employees spend too much time creating ideas for which there is no organizational interest or need. The end result is a lot of waste – from the individual to the organizational level.

Consider the case of a global technology organization. The organization, founded in the mid 1990s, had seen unprecedented growth during the Internet boom days. As one senior executive remarked, “we were not only running on all cylinders, but were actually borrowing cylinders and fuel rods to keep up with demand.” The organization grew from humble beginnings (3 students!) to just under 200 employees in five years. It now has 10 clients in US states and 3 international clients (based in London, Brussels, and Amsterdam). As soon as the glory days came to a screeching halt with the dot.com bust, the organization, like many of its compatriots in the industry, had to do some hard thinking to redefine business strategies. To this end, the organization solicited ideas from its employees concerning the company's direction for the future– the slogan – 10 for 10: 10 big ideas for the next 10 years! The goal was to get the firm to think big and to identify 10 broad areas that 1) they would want to invest and build capability in, 2) they would want to build collaborative capacities by reaching out to start-ups and established firms, and 3) they would require re-tuning (or complete obliteration) of their current strategic focus. The company did what any other organization would do; It solicited ideas from employees across all ranks. The company commissioned online “idea drop boxes.” Employees could send in their ideas via filling in a brief online questionnaire. Within a week, the company had over 500 ideas (about 2.5 ideas from each employee!); and by the end of the four week idea solicitation period they had captured over 1200 ideas (a little more than 6 ideas per employee!) As one executive remarked, “we underestimated the whole [idea solicitation] thing…employees were scared…their friends were losing jobs, companies like ours were closing, venture capitalist were getting tighter with the purse strings…all of this contributed to fear…employees wanted to help the company, and themselves, by sharing their best ideas that would not only keep us afloat but secure a better future…” This was the easy part-- getting ideas-- the big challenge ahead for the organization was what to do with these and how do to go about screening them. Over the course of the next five months, the firm tried its best to bubble up the best ideas through applying various screening procedures, getting comments and feedback on ideas from internal (i.e. employees), as well as external (i.e. board of directors, collaborators from academia, venture capitalist, etc), sources.

Unfortunately, the organization did not have a robust process for advocating and screening ideas. The end-result is best summarized by a statement made by the CEO – “absolute disaster…we ended up pissing off more staff than those we appeased, lost good employees who felt their ideas were not duly considered, and what hurts me most, is employees lost faith in the organization as a place that valued ideas…front-line programmers and system designers who are our most important assets felt ideas get promoted based on ones political network and clout…we all lost, I will never do this again…we might never recover the trust and camaraderie that we had prior to this undertaking.

The bad news for organizations is that the advocacy and screening stage of the intrapreneurship process is fraught with difficulties.

To learn how to build sustainable processes for idea advocacy and screening, please contact me (or wait for a future posting…or my new book)

A New Work Force Wave: Managing Millennials (See beyond the stereotypes of the ‘Me Generation’ to harness creativity)

I was recently interviewed for an article on innovation by Colin Simpson of the Bellingham Business Journal. To retrieve the article, please click here [LINK]. As I continue to study innovation practices in high-technology organizations, I continue to be amazed by the innovative capacities of the ‘Me Generation’….