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Can Grassroots Innovation Work?

27 06 2008

I just spent the day at a client today who’s trying to make a grassroots innovation program work.  Specifically, they’re trying to build up an innovation capacity ‘under the radar’ – choosing to drive their internal program without specific knowledge of, or support from, the very top of the company. However – best practice is commonly to start with the top and work down – it’s just easier to have that mandate and strategic direction with which to work with. However – not everyone has that luxury – and whilst much harder to drive an innovation program from the bottom up, it’s far from impossible – as long as you follow some guidelines: 

  1. Start with strategy – just because you don’t have top level support, doesn’t mean you don’t need to follow the company strategy. In order to become successful, and to build the stories and gather the credibility needed to grow your program – you need to be helping the organization (and the individual managers you’re enabling) to achieve its goals. Innovation can change a company completely – Innovation is about coming up with value-creating change – but an organization won’t want to change in a direction that is against the direction the company wants to go in. You could come up with a fantastic idea for a new beverage that would revolutionize the drinks world, but if your company is determined to attain and maintain a leadership position in the aerospace industry, you’re wasting your time developing that idea. It’s simply not productive to “swim against the current” – your goal as an innovation leader is always to help the company achieve its goals – not try to convince them of goals they do not have. 
  2. Start conservatively and focus on value creation. At this customer today, when talking about barriers to the innovation strategy we were formulating – one of the team members brought up that she’d been trying to get the company to realize the value of open innovation for years – they simply weren’t open to outside ideas.  There’s a common problem in many grassroots innovation programs – and it’s especially problematic when you have visioning conversations and strategic thoughts – of trying to implement an innovation system that is several generations ahead of what the organization will accept.  Cultural change is not an overnight process – at best it will take at least 18 months to make a positive behavioral change in a large organization – and that’s assuming you’re constantly re-enforcing the change behavior you’re looking to move to.  To take this example as an illustration – when looking at what the organization needs to do in order to achieve its long term goals, it’s easy to see an ideal system that incorporates outside ideas and insights from customers, suppliers, and others in addition to all sorts of complex systems. However – a grassroots system needs, more than any other, to be built off of credibility creating successes.  Focus on creating value utilizing a disciplined approach to idea capture and development and you’ll begin to build successes you can build on and expand off of. For example, with this client today, they need to start by driving key projects with divisional VPs utilizing internal ideation to create new product ideas that have the potential to create value. Once they’ve achieved that, and built up some credibility “credit” – they can then use that to try and expand the use of the system through less conventional techniques – not only because the business sponsors will be more open to letting you experiment, but also because the organization as a whole will be more used to the concept of ideas as a source of value – focusing more on the value concept than where the ideas come from. 
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