How to Promote Innovative Behavior

How to Promote Innovative Behavior
By John Gabrick

For far too long, innovation management has been the poor stepchild of business processes. Relegated to a simple ‘idea submission form’ or similar, ideas have been collected and then thrown into the pot to see what would happen.

With the advent of Web 2.0, innovation management became more social, with many vendors providing innovation communities to “sort through” the best ideas and let the crowd determine the best. While this new philosophy is better than the first, it too, yielded few results. First, getting your ideas from the “crowd” typically does not work as advertised. There are far too many issues involved with sharing your ideas in a public forum, and anything of real value will probably not be discussed. While you may get improvements to your products, you have to deal with volumes of junk, with the realization that you’ll spend a great deal of time finding the gems. Proponents of the “open” social methodologies are hard-pressed to provide any examples of true innovation that came from these methods.

Consider the results of American Idol, the ultimate crowdsourcing experiment. Each week, one or more contestants are eliminated based on the opinion of the audience. However, according to a recent article in USA Today, while the crowd has picked winners that have been successful, they have more often than not picked less than spectacular winners. And, note that the original group of participants, numbering nearly 70,000 for each season, is initially picked by “qualified” judges, further underscoring the fact that you cannot rely on the crowd even to pick the initial list of participants with only several hundred actually being selected to perform on television-or about 0.2%. As a final comment, realize that industry executives (and otherwise small numbers of people) have been picking hit songs and artists for decades-all without the help of the crowd. So, how do you utilize innovation management and social networking to your advantage? By tightly controlling it with a closed process. Seems counterintuitive, but it works. I’ll give you several steps to consider:

  1. Define a specific question that you want answered. Instead of looking for general ideas, you should seek to narrow your innovative efforts. If I walked into a room with 100 people and simply asked them for good ideas, I’d get a range of answers from changing the way I dress (probably a good one), to how to cure cancer. While many might be good, I’d be hard pressed to weed through all of the answers and then appropriately review each one.
  2. Target a specific audience. By targeting, you need to achieve two things. First, you need to go after a group that will have at least some understanding of the question that you want answered-I’m not suggesting that only engineers can answer engineering problems, however, if you are asking people with no environmental or domain expertise, then you’re going to be disappointed. Second, you need to have some measure of control over this group. This means that the audience has to have some incentive to provide you with good ideas, whether it is promotions, recognition, or something else. If you are going after a purely external group of people, then you’re going to have to look more toward the “something else”, because you can’t offer promotions, rewards, or recognition-the most highly regarded aspects of innovation from an internal group.
  3. Get experts to help you. Once you’ve defined your question and begin to get possible solutions, you are going to need experts to help you evaluate them. How else would you be able to credibility analyze the suggestions? And credibility is a big part of the equation. Submitters like to feel that their contributions are fairly and accurately judged. You don’t want the baseball commissioner umpiring a game. Umpires have the experience and judgment (except when it’s your team) to make calls. Can you imagine the problems if you had one of the fans acting as the umpire-which happens in elementary school to everyone’s demise-umpiring a game. The players, coaches, and spectators would be crying foul. It’s no different in innovation.
  4. Leadership. An intangible by critical element of innovation, you won’t have success without it. It ties directly with item #2, ‘Target a specific audience,’ because as mentioned, there needs to be some element of control. Think about the captain of a Navy boat. He (or she) has the authority and respect to make things happen, but also has the ability to provide rewards and promotions. So, on one hand, they can encourage participation in innovation and on the other hand, provide the recognition that comes with success. How do you provide leadership? Well, you could probably write a whole book on that subject, but in essence in boils down to: Does this person really believe that innovation is important, and are they demonstrating the importance with not only words, but also actions.

Can you get innovation without following these steps? Sure, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The problem with not using these steps is that your innovation process will be unpredictable and unreliable, and you’ll have a hard time justifying it. Today, more than ever, it’s critical to have a constant supply of new initiatives to remain competitive. That constant supply is only going to come by following a repeatable process.

Copyright 2011. All rights reserved

With over 25 years experience in a variety of industries, Mr. Gabrick is an industry-seasoned professional in innovation business processes. This experience provided an education of unprecedented depths, first-hand exposure to the relevant issues, and ultimately served to fuel his passion to drive positive change related to innovation management, both at the corporate and employee levels. He has been dedicated exclusively to helping organizations to understand, design, and implement innovation processes across the enterprise. For information on his book about innovation, go to

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