Democratizing innovation

If innovation is the lifeblood of an organization, then organizations must put a premium on their greatest innovators. Chris Anderson claims in January’s Wired Magazine that “Out of 100 people, maybe fewer than half a dozen are likely to innovate … and their best ideas will come along only every few years.” If he’s right, you don’t want to lose your innovators.

What happens when you do? In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo gives an extreme case study. Head of Israeli intelligence Aharon Farkash concluded in 2001 that Israel was approaching Hizb’allah all wrong. Direct attacks only made the terrorists stronger, forcing them to evolve. Under Israel’s traditional strategy, Hizb’allah became the world’s most innovative organization. Instead of strengthening terrorists, Farkash decided to identify and target the two or three in any terrorist organization who had the skills to help the organization evolve under pressure. The results of the new strategy? Terrorist attacks plummeted, and hundreds of Islamic terrorist groups went out of business.

There are two takeaways from this harsh example. First, organizations of all kinds simply can’t survive without innovators. Second, innovation grows best in hardship. The latter point is worth a blog post in the future, but let’s jump in on the first one.

This is the point where we conclude that an organization should hold onto and — if necessary — protect their innovators, right? Perhaps, but my inclination is rather to de-specialize. Get more people involved in innovating.

Anderson agrees:

Innovation has always been a group activity. The myth of the lone genius having a eureka moment that changes the world is indeed a myth. Most innovation is the result of long hours, building on the input of others. Ideas spawn from earlier ideas, bouncing from person to person and being reshaped as they go.

Michael Farrell describes the best conditions: “throughout history the best creativity has happened when groups of artists, reformers, writers, or scientists connected regularly with one another.” What better place for this to happen than social media? Ideas shared by one group can be improved by another, across more territory and in less time than was possible before. Social media shaves years off the traditional process.

Innovation doesn’t have to be the property of a few individuals. It can be cultivated in a community, diversifying the roles. Simply stated, innovators need support. For starters, the key first follower, the one who recognizes an idea. I shared a video a while ago that made the point that the leader isn’t the most important role in a trend. The first follower “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” In the corporate world, you need to get a boss on board. Half of innovation is the ability of managers to recognize an idea as worthy of support. Anderson adds:

The community needs to contain at least a few people capable of innovation. But not everyone in the community need be. There are plenty of other necessary roles:

  • The trend-spotter, who finds a promising innovation early.
  • The evangelist, who passionately makes the case for idea X or person Y.
  • The superspreader, who broadcasts innovations to a larger group.
  • The skeptic, who keeps the conversation honest.
  • General participants, who show up, comment honestly, and learn.

I see room for just about everyone. Are you over-reliant on a handful of people for your innovations? How can you democratize the process, pulling in others with different roles to participate in, feel ownership of and celebrate innovation?

Getting more specific, an organization that lists Innovation as a core value needs to consider the business side of how to get these kinds of people together. Is it a structural issue? Do ideas have a place to go beyond the chain of command? Do you need to schedule a FedEx day?

Farkash had it right: innovation is a life or death issue. The organization that fails to innovate will not be around long.

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4 thoughts on “Democratizing innovation

  1. 3M and Google have both been, for lack of a better word, innovative in their encouragement of innovation amongst staff. I just read this articlerecently about how each of these companies have their staff spend up to something like 15% of their time (same type model as Fed Ex apparently) on their special innovative projects.

    What would it look like if Wycliffe did that? Another question: What would I spend my time on if I had 15% to focus on innovations spinning around in my head? Or do I not even have innovations spinning around in my head because I don’t have the 15% to focus on them?

    What is the next recruitment strategy, language software program, or personnel development idea that is out there just waiting to be uncovered? How does one go about implementing such a program? Who are the innovators?

      • Yes, they are fun questions. I think I read that you’re thinking very practically when you ask, “How does one go about implementing such a program?” Good question. I suppose you could do it departmentally a lot easier than doing it office-wide or organization-wide. And you start with doing it once. It sounds like companies that do this on a regular basis have increased the frequency that they hold innovation days as they’ve seen the power of it. I’m impressed that 3M started out with 15% of their time and that they did that as early as 1948!

        A friend recently sent me an article from Technology Review that recommends this strategy for innovation: Think big, start small, fail quickly, scale fast.

        So, maybe we should pick a day at Wycliffe and start talking it up. See how many departments we can get on board.

  2. Pingback: The petrie dish for innovation « the back row leader

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