Six Factors in Emergent Innovation
April 21, 2010 5 Comments
In discussing employee-driven innovation, having a technology platform to deliver on objectives is a key part of a company’s strategy. Hard to get everyone tuned in when you rely only on email and conversations with your cubicle mates. But that’s just one factor. There are many other considerations for companies seeking to vault to the top of their industries through greater innovation.
One set of characteristics are what I term factors of “emergent” innovation. I use emergent here in the sense of conditions which let good ideas find their level inside a company, regardless of source. Think of this as an alternative to R&D-led innovation, or innovations decided solely in the executive suite and cast down for implementation by the troops.
Of course, there are more than six factors to emergent innovation. For instance, the actual process of turning someone’s idea into an innovation project has several factors of its own. But these six are a good start.
This post is long. The links below will take you directly to a specific section.
- Healthy use of doubt
- Rough alternatives
- Resource margin
- Positive deviants
- Diversity of viewpoints
So what are these factors?
In creative thought, doubt is good. Doubt produces creative efficiency.
David Kord Murray, Borrowing Brilliance (page 167)
Doubt is a word pregnant with different connotations. It can have a strong meaning of, “I don’t believe you.” In terms of working on innovations, that meaning has the potential to undermine collaborative work.
But in the quote above from David Kord Murray, it has a more productive meaning. “Doubt” refers to continually challenging existing practices to determine how things can be done better. These may be company practices, or your own. As Murray explains it, without doubt you are implicitly accepting that current practices are the best they can be. You get locked in on one way to do things. Yet, as has been documented, the rate of change in global markets is accelerating. Locking into the one best way to do things becomes a recipe for a declining business.
In his book Borrowing Brilliance, Murray relates that Albert Einstein had an apathetic relationship to his first Theory of Relativity. Why? He maintained a healthy use of doubt toward it, knowing there was more to be done. He didn’t settle on his first theory, and eventually came up with his better second Theory of Relativity.
One note about the term “healthy” here. Doubt is a mental framework in which you look at things and consider how they can be better. Doubt should not become a systemic condition that causes people to stop efforts on current projects, as in “we’re doing this wrong, so why bother”. It’d be wrong to assume everything a company does is poor and must be scrapped. Or that every individual opinion must be acted upon.
A Stanford study investigating quick executive decision making noted that fast decision makers (a necessary component of agility) operated as though they had a rotating radar antenna; constantly refreshing context and identifying alternative paths of action. Their speed came from having rough alternatives at hand if conditions changed.
Christopher Meyer, LinkedIn discussion
Intuitively, this concept makes a lot of sense. While it may seem obvious, it’s not for those working in the trenches. The general approach is selecting the course of action, and execute like hell. Go big or go home.
And that “execution” mentality is right. It is appropriate to aggressively execute on an initiative once a decision has been made. That’s how companies get ahead.
Meyer’s comment from the LinkedIn discussion above gets at an aspect of company strategy that’s growing in importance. Be ready to pull the trigger on an alternative when conditions change. Which means having a set of rough alternatives ready.
The notion of “doubt” in the previous section is useful here. Again, not “doubt” in the sense of undermining efforts to see a particular course of action through to success. Rather, maintain a healthy perspective that even as you’re working on one way to do something, there likely are better ways still, undiscovered.
Maintaining a set of alternatives is applicable to all parts of an organization. Senior level executives, mid-level managers, project leaders and anyone doing their job. I’d argue that people in the trenches are closer to the reality of how an initiative is faring, and have a sense of rough alternatives. Enable these individuals to share what they’re seeing.
The cost of experimentation is now the same or less than the cost of analysis. You can get more value for time, more value for dollar, more value for euro, by doing a quick experiment than from doing a sophisticated analysis. In fact, your quick experiment can make your sophisticated analysis better.
Michael Schrage, Research Fellow at MIT Center for Digital Business
Once a proposed idea has been identified as having merit, it needs to be put through its paces. This historically was challenging, due to constraints on building out prototypes or simulating new features. But the world has gotten more digital, and as such much more can be tested than historically has been possible. In a Wall Street Journal article by the quoted author above, Michael Schrage, Google is noted for its ongoing experiments with search results. This isn’t surprising of course. Google exists in a digital world.
But what about non-digital firms? Wal-Mart regularly experiments with signage, displays and shelf layouts to gauge the effect of different ideas. Tesco experiments with different factors that determine when another checkout lane should be opened.
Even in the realm of healthcare, experiments are being conducted. Not drug trials, but improvements to processes. Kaiser Permanente operates The Sidney R. Garfield Health Care Innovation Center. The Center “brings together technology, architecture, nurses, doctors and patients with human-centered design thinking and low-fidelity prototyping and design to brainstorm and test tools and programs for patient-centered care in a mock hospital, clinic, office or home environment.”
Experiments are a data-based method of testing potential innovations. But they differ from current practice for many corporations, which to rely less on your own experiments and ore on the advice of well-paid consultants. Why? Dan Ariely observes the following in Harvard Business Review:
There’s the false sense of security that heeding experts provides. When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking.
Emergent innovation is better served by internally managed experiments, not advice from external experts.
The concept of resource margin is a really good one. I came across this nice description:
No matter how I see it, agility to me is much to do with introducing margin. What I mean by this is how much the necessary margin to have within your processes, knowledge base and human resources to allow for changes. You may have a norm for people to continuously question their processes and products, “Only the paranoid survives”, but if they have no room/margin for change, it’s hard to get them to react with agility.
Jeevandra Sivarajah, LinkedIn discussion
This observation just makes sense. In a world of increased busyness, employees need that bit of flex in their schedules to explore improvements to something: processes, products, customer service, etc.
Google, of course, is famous for its 20% time. Employees have the freedom to set aside their daily work and invest some cycles on exploring something new. 3M has long had a similar policy.
Now for companies, I can see the math here…employees only working 4/5 of their time on core daily tasks needed. Means you need to hire 5/4 number of employees, or an extra 25% headcount. Economy is still wobbly, hmmm…
The reality is that innovation is a core part of companies’ growth. Which company doesn’t see that? Sure, there are firms devoted to be fast followers rather than innovators. But most companies thrive-or-suffer based on their innovation performance. Note, innovation is not just slick new products.
Employees should have innovation as part of their core jobs. In other words, sure they need to file their TPS Reports and process N number of transactions. But part of their day includes thinking about improvements and bigger ideas, socializing these ideas, researching them, figuring out experiments for them, etc.
Alternatively, companies can set up special ideation events. Maybe employees don’t have the time or wherewithal to pursue an innovation all the way through. But others in a company will, and they will benefit from hearing the crowdsourced ideas of employees.
Resource margin plays an important role in emergent innovation.
I really love the juxtaposition of “positive” and “deviants”. Two words that are often at odds. But they work well together. What is a positive deviant?
This initiative is an example of “positive deviance,” an approach to behavioral and social change. Instead of imposing solutions from without, the method identifies outliers in a community who, despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, The power of positive deviants
As someone who has worked in large organizations, the observation that there are people with different, smart approaches is one I wholeheartedly endorse. Seen it plenty of times, from my work with headquarters, in-store and warehouse personnel at Hecht’s Department Store to my days of investment banking with Bank of America.
Here’s a good example. The sales crew at Spigit do a good amount of outbound marketing to prospective customers. As anyone who has used email for this knows, it’s hard to figure out what works in terms of email subject lines and email body. One of our sales guys came up with a totally different subject line, certainly different than anything I would have come up with. And it works. The open rate is much better for his subject line. No paid consultants needed – someone figured out a way that works.
What’s particularly appealing here is that these innovations arise from the everyday work and problem-solving people do. This is the benefit of tapping this amazing resource: employees’ ingenuity and problem solving acumen.
Leveraging the “found” solutions inside an organization is part of emergent innovation.
Ideas benefit from a diversity of viewpoints. Professor Ron Burt studied something called “structural holes”, and employees who broker them. Think of structural holes as gaps between groups of people in an organization. These gaps prevent people from accessing one another’s feedback, perspective and expertise.
People with connections across structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing and developing good ideas. People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity. This is not creativity born of genius. It is creativity as an import-export business.
Professor Ron Burt, Structural Holes and Good Ideas (pdf)
Professor Burt’s empirical analysis identified exposure to a greater range of perspectives as a key element of generating higher quality ideas. I particularly like this part of his observation: “diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations”.
That’s right. Disagreeing perspectives are good for innovation. Not a chorus of “amens”. Contradictory knowledge and perspectives as productive innovation friction.
For companies, these collaborative networks are a form of crowdsourcing. Sourcing ideas from around the organization, and more importantly letting others with interest provide feedback and ideas for refinement.
Emergent innovation benefits significantly from…emergent perspectives gathered from around the organization. Note that email and over-the-cubicle-wall conversations are limiting factors on innovation. Hard to get a diversity of perspectives with those as your only sharing modes.
For companies seeking to accelerate innovation, those six characteristics are a solid beginning. What do you think?