Getting Everyone Involved in Innovation Initiatives

Ann All
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Yesterday, I wrote about companies using game thinking and mechanics to solve business problems, noting that idea generation is one of the more interesting use cases for what most folks (including Gartner in a recent report) call gamification in the enterprise. The trend is rapidly gaining momentum, and Gartner predicts more than 70 percent of the world's 2,000 largest companies will use gamification for at least one aspect of their organization by 2014.


I linked to an earlier post in which I shared five innovation myths discussed by academics Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J.L. Barsoux in an MIT Sloan Management Review article. All five myths fall under the umbrella of what I'd call an uber-myth: that innovation spontaneously happens. Generating innovative ideas isn't the hard part; it's executing on those ideas. The latter stages of the innovation process, where ideas are worked up and developed in detail, is where most companies struggle. (This won't be good news to folks who hope throwing up a site where employees can contribute and vote on ideas is the answer to all their innovation problems.)


The authors offered some great real-world examples to illustrate their points and some key takeaways, but I would have liked to have gotten more concrete advice on how companies could tackle the "execution issue."


So I was tickled to discover a more recent CMS Wire article that does just that, written by Allison Dahl, who manages communication and engagement for IdeaNet, the internal Pitney Bowes open innovation program. One of the article's biggest takeaways, which is also discussed in the MIT Sloan Management Review piece, is to get upper management involved. This could be a challenge, as some executives still seem to view innovation initiatives as little more than time wasters that distract employees and defer focus from core business activities.


Dahl offers some good suggestions. She says four groups of constituents should be involved:

  • Executive Sponsors help illustrate that innovation is a priority for the organization. Sponsors should be individuals who have a vested interest in the problem and the desire and authority to act on new ideas.
  • A designated team of Management Enablers should be assigned to each challenge to manage and champion ideas, Dahl says. This group will engage in dialogue with the employee community and take responsibility for identifying which ideas to pursue and prioritizing them. They may pose follow-up questions and help build out promising ideas.
  • An employee innovation program will require metrics, reports, communications and support, all of which should be provided by Administrators. Program administrators may oversee the process, maintain any necessary technologies or websites and facilitate end-to-end management. Administrators often have job responsibilities outside of employee engagement or innovation, Dahl notes, but some companies may dedicate resources to this particular function.
  • Ultimately, concludes Dahl, the success of any effort depends on the ability to engage rank-and-file Employees. Companies can make it easier for everyone to participate by providing multiple ways to get involved. She writes: "Some employees, for example, will want to create ideas. Others may choose to comment on ideas, add to ideas, or simply vote on which ideas offer the greatest potential." Without this approach, I'd add, companies risk making innovation seem like a chore to at least some employees.


Some of Dahl's other suggestions that I found particularly helpful:


Challenge employees with specific problems, which will be more likely to yield actionable ideas. It will also help foster a sense of community, as employees work together on a common problem. The authors of the MIT Sloan Management Review touched on this as well, noting that large, general forums often yield lots of irrelevant and "half-baked" ideas.


Gather diverse groups from different business functions (and preferably from different age, gender and ethnic groups), which Dahl says should result in "new insight, unique connections and innovative ideas that can help overcome the 'group think' and 'tried that before' mentality that often hinders innovation." This is where I think social technologies can play a key role in connecting some of these groups. For an idea of how this can work, read my interview with Jack MacKay, CIO of the American Hospital Association, and Karthik Chakkarapani, the AHA's IT director, about the organization's use of software from Socialtext, which is making the AHA's intranet a hub for innovation and communication.


Identify organizational barriers (and hopefully remove them) before launching innovation initiatives. Dahl mentions some common barriers, including fear of failure, fear of taking risks and siloed communications. She says a pilot offers a good opportunity to "measure results, make modifications and address any barriers that arise." For advice on pilots, read my post "Companies Will Move at Different Speeds on Social Technologies," which contains smart advice from Andrew McAfee and Jeremiah Owyang.

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