Innovation requires something new that changes the way in which an activity gets done. In this formulation, ideation is the processus maximus, the best way to get something new. It properly is the most frequent mode of innovation. It delivers results.
But sometimes, it's good to shake things up. Change up the routine to refresh the sources of inspiration. And to find new insights to drive innovation.
When you want to add some variety and source new insights, here are four different ways to enlist the crowd in innovation beyond ideation:
- Challenge orthodoxy
- What's working
Each takes a different perspective. Let's examine them in more detail.
If the principle question of ideation is, "What if we...?", the question for challenging orthodoxy is,
"Why do we...?"
Orthodoxy is a practice or policy that is accepted widely by a group. The acceptance might be because it's always been that way, or because you see others who accept the orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not wrong in and of itself. For instance, flossing your teeth each day is a sound practice, part of the good dental hygiene orthodoxy.
However, there are inevitably cases where orthodoxy no longer serves as a path to good results. Entrenched practices that have failed to keep up with changes in context or alternative ways to do something. This is orthodoxy as organizational sclerosis.
We all - and I mean all of us - see things that strike us as redundant, out-of-order, unnecessary, illogical or wrongly applied. But there's an institutional inertia that allows silly practices to continue on without change. I guarantee you every organization has some of this. A couple examples of challenging orthodoxy I've seen over the years:
- Why do we lead sales presentations with so much information about ourselves instead of getting right to what prospective clients want?
- Why do we write huge product requirement documents that make it difficult to track progress and make changes?
Find those practices that are sub-optimal, wasteful, confusing, etc. Run a campaign where participants are asked to highlight orthodoxies in a particular area. Executives, who are largely removed from the day-in, day-out work of employees in the trenches, will benefit from hearing what is holding back the organization. And employees will feel empowered to improve the functioning of the company.
Jerry Sternin was tasked to help reduce malnourishment among children in Vietnam as part of his work with Save the Children. In conducting his research, he came across some families where the children were well-fed and healthy. They did not have access to any more resources than other families. But they were doing something different with what was available: gathering tiny crabs and shrimp from the waters around them. They added these protein-rich sources to their children's usual diets. Result? These children were significantly better off in health.
These families were positive deviants. They deviated from the way other people did things, and achieved better results. This is its own form of innovation.
Similarly, in organizations there will be different people and teams who do the same things: invoice processing, sales prospecting, inventory management, customer service, IT management, etc. You can bet that some people have deviated from the norm in terms of how they approach their work.
Run a campaign for a specific practice, asking people how they get things done for it. Find those who have devised a better way through their own ingenuity.
One note: employees may be uncomfortable sharing their deviations from the norm. If executive behaviors have set a precedent for cracking down on non-conforming, you'll need to establish a "safe zone" for such a campaign. Explicit statements that deviations are welcome, or allow people to post anonymously.
Think of a "what's working" campaign as a way of addressing the classic observation of William Gibson: The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.
Ideas will be generated in response to problems that need a solution. But why not go upstream in this process? Before trying to solve problems, make sure the organization has a good handle on what the problems actually are.
While not exclusively so, problem-sourcing campaigns are well-aligned with continuous improvement and six sigma philosophies. Problems in this context are those little things that:
- Reduce productivity
- Result in suboptimal results
- Diminish customer satisfaction
- Leak money
- Delay responses to requests
A conscientious program of understanding problems becomes a way to generate tangible improvements through the crowd. It also allows people to air some thing that bug them about the work they do.
It need not be just small improvements either. Imagine setting an ambitious goal (e.g. Amazon's desire to achieve same day shipping). Run a campaign where people need not solve issues. But they can apply their analytical power to identifying issues that would get in the way of achieving the goal. These problems then become the basis for ideating to achieve the Big Goal.
At the 2014 HYPE Innovation Managers Forum, Witzenmann discussed how they use crowdsourcing to find and discuss trends. Witzenmann makes pipes and tubing, which might make you wonder, "what on earth are they trendscouting for?" Here's a specific example I noted from the presentation:
#hypeforum14 Witzenmann trendscouting example: "mobility". Within that theme, trends like travel comfort, power train, autonomous cars, etc.— Hutch Carpenter (@bhc3) May 9, 2014
Consider that for a moment. Mobility is something we see happening all around us. We're getting more done, and getting access to more information and media, outside of our traditional modes (office, living room). And there will need for pipes, tubing, joints, etc. that are used as part of delivering greater mobility. Witzenmann looks to a group of specific employees to help find new trends.
Campaigns can be run for trends that are being seen within the industry, or which will have obvious application inside one's industry. These trends are the nutrients for innovation. Trends can also be extended out further than one's own industry. There are experiments, innovations, new technologies, models going on in industries that are further away from your own. These have potential to differentiate your offerings. This latter case is an argument made by Roberto Verganti in his book, Design-Driven Innovation.
Trendscouting offers a fresh alternative to the process of innovation. Use the distributed eyes of smart people - who are vested in your company's future - to help identify where future opportunities lie. Get ahead of the curve to build your innovation edge.
While ideation should still be center stage in your innovation program, spice things up for participants and gain new insights you're not capturing today. Run campaigns that go beyond ideation.