When you read the history of the greatest products ever created, you find out that many times, the innovator was ignored or ridiculed by his company along the way, and even had to struggle against the wishes of the management. Why does this happen? Shouldn’t managers at least be giving these people moral support?
—Name withheld, Livermore,
If only managers could see the future like they should, right?
Come on! Of course, no one in an organization should be ignored or ridiculed. That is a rule, and any manager who breaks it is a jerk.
But, you have to give managers a break on the innovation front. How are ordinary mortals to know if the employee toiling on a promising project is the next Bill Gates or just a resource-draining wannabe?
The fact is, not every explorer, whether he is seeking new worlds in a garage or a corporate research and development lab, ends up discovering the next big thing. Some are just dabblers. Some are just dreamers. And some, despite their brains, ambition and sincerity, are just not focusing on the right thing for the market.
No wonder, then, that many experienced managers have trouble lending moral support to the aspiring innovators in their midst, and can barely keep from groaning when these same types ask for extra people, time and funding, as they so often do.
Your question, however, brings up a point even more critical to business success than the proper care and feeding of designated innovation gurus. It is about how and where innovation actually happens, a topic of some confusion.
Everywhere we speak around the world, to business groups of every type and size, we hear people talk about innovation in its most glamorized form—as a revolutionary breakthrough that changes how whole industries operate or whole groups of consumers behave. We hear questions about how companies should organize to generate the next iPod and manage their people to produce (or attract) the next Sergey Brin or Larry Page.
Such queries are all well and fine: Sometimes, the innovation war is won by a brand new killer application or a genius (or two) with a eureka. But, far more often, innovation comes not as a one-time thunderbolt, but emerges incrementally—in bits and chugs, forged by a mixed bag of co-workers from up, down and across an organization, sweating and wrangling it out in the trenches.
Glamorous? Hardly. Powerful? Absolutely.
Now, make no mistake. Such iterative, bottom-up, collaborative innovation does not happen by accident. Indeed, it can occur only when managers encourage, and the whole organization buys into, a mindset nearly religious in its zeal.
This mindset’s central belief is simple: Innovation is so thoroughly ingrained in everyone’s job—yes, everyone’s—that each employee arrives at work every day thinking, “Is there a better way to do everything we do around here? What is a way to improve on our products and services?” It is a mindset that makes people excited about sharing new ideas for product or process improvement with their colleagues, and about embracing the notion that you win as an organization only when everyone’s brain is engaged.
Managers, of course, will see this mindset flourish the more they reward it with pay raises and bonuses and celebrate it within the culture, making role models out of people who bring innovative ideas forward, no matter where they find them, be it inside the company or out.
But, the innovation mindset is most effective when it is coupled with an institutionalized process that draws together employees from different levels and functions within the business and, with a facilitator, gets them talking, debating and problem-solving as a team. Some companies call these sessions “workout”; others refer to them as “town meetings” or “innovation councils”.
By any name, their purpose is the same—to bring the conversation about innovation to the people closest to the products, services and processes. So, often, they are the real geniuses, and the ideas they generate collectively, perhaps ironically, so often leapfrog the competition waiting for its one big breakthrough.
Speaking of irony, your letter arrived the very same day we received a question from a reader in Chicago, “How can I dare to suggest a new idea I have for a product to my manager, when I am not in research and development, and the product would probably only benefit another business in our company?” How sad, we thought, another company where managers have sent the message that innovation comes from the chosen few.
Of course, it should come from them. But, imagine the possibilities and the unleashed power—not to mention the fun—when organizations engage everyone else in the process, too.
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