The innovator and the organization: why we don’t go to work to innovate

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Be brutally efficient with ideas and radically generous towards people

When looking at innovation, it can sometimes be easier to talk about process rather than people. There is a dichotomy between the role “The Innovator” and “The Organization” that often makes it hard to reward and incentivize innovators the way we really need to. The actions of an innovator are, by necessity, risky, non-hierarchal and deserving of exceptional reward. This contrasts with most of our organizations, which have been built up to effectively manage large groups towards common goals and, therefore, thrive off stability, order and chain-of-command. The reaction is often to silo innovation to some combination of R&D and board room meetings. Finding systems that empower innovators without breaking organizational structure is the dilemma that largely defines our industry. It’s an important question to answer, because, if we don’t make it worth people’s while, why would they come to work to innovate?

Companies have to get braver in the ways they reward and trust their employees if they want to truly turn themselves into innovation powerhouses.

It is a problem with very real consequences. Here at IdeaScale we use one stat a lot: the fact that between 1999 and 2009, 50% of the Fortune 500 lost their position on the list as they failed to meaningfully keep pace with the market. This is despite almost 3% of US GDP being spent on R&D.

At the same time there is clear alienation of workers from boardroom goals, with a recent LinkedIn survey showing that only 37% of people in the global workforce are purpose-driven in their work – the rest are coming in, receiving their instructions and clocking out (I heard this stat at a conference, but it, along with a ton of other gold, should be reported here). This is, once again, despite massive investment, with US HR organizations spending almost $3000 per employee.

It is my belief that these two phenomena tell us a strong story; that companies have to get braver in the ways they reward and trust their employees if they want to truly turn themselves into innovation powerhouses.

There is no greater benefit to your employees than empowering them to prove their worth through high-quality delivery of innovation.

The good news is that people are doing this! In government you have the Department of Energy running the awesome Sun Shot challenge, Sensis Innovation coming up with great ways to create challenges in the public sector and Challenge.gov providing a comprehensive list of all federal government challenges. Combined, along with many others, these organizations are working to create a more responsive and inclusive government.

In the private sector a great example is Whole Foods who have been radical in the way they empower and reward local teams of employees to come up with solutions rather than rely on top-down initiatives. The success of this approach has been pretty widely discussed and Fast Company recently did a good profile on exactly how Whole Foods works.

In private we also see many of our customers starting to do this well; allowing winning ideas to be pitched to the CEO and implemented with the original submitter leading the way. There is no greater benefit to your employees than empowering them to prove their worth through high-quality delivery of innovation.

To solve the dichotomy of the innovator and the organization we must build tools that allow a company to efficiently manage and identify the best ideas among many.

So what does this all mean for the product team here at IdeaScale? We have come up with a phrase I use quite a bit; “be efficient towards ideas, but generous towards people.” It is this attempt that defines the tools we want to build for our customers over the coming years. To solve the dichotomy of the innovator and the organization we must build tools that allow a company to efficiently manage and identify the best ideas among many, while at the same time making it possible for a diligent moderation team to make every user feel valued. We have some pretty exciting things coming down the road to significantly improve the efficacy of both of these “streams.”

On a larger scale, I think it means working with customers and partners to get people talked about more often and earlier in innovation strategy meetings. Tools can make this radical generosity possible, but in the end it will be down to the organizations themselves. When we have organizations with the flexibility to reward a first-year employee with a genius idea as the innovator they are; when a mechanic in Cleveland with a great idea knows that she will be listened to by her government and can make her community better; then we will get the innovative organizations we truly want and it will be because people will want to join us on the journey. We spend every day here at IdeaScale talking about both efficiency and generosity, but I personally get a real kick out of the human potential in the second half of our little slogan and hope some of you do too.

This blog post is part of a series authored by IdeaScale employees. It showcases how they’re thinking about crowdsourcing and innovation as part of their daily routine. Feel free to ask questions or make comments.

This post is by James Baillie, Head of Product at IdeaScale.

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