Finding Innovation Where It Lives

Smart companies don't just wait around for their geniuses to shout "Eureka!"

When you read up on the greatest products ever created, you find out that the innovator was often ignored or ridiculed by his company along the way and had to struggle with management. Why does this happen? Shouldn't managers at least be giving these people moral support? — Anonymous, Livermore, Calif.

If only managers could see the future like they should, right? Come on! Of course, no one in an organization should be ignored or ridiculed. That's a rule, and any manager who breaks it is a jerk. But you have to cut managers a break on the innovation front. How are ordinary mortals to know if the employee toiling on a promising project is the next Bill Gates or a resource-draining wannabe? The fact is, not every explorer, whether he's seeking new worlds in a garage or a corporate R&D lab, ends up discovering the Next Big Thing. Some are just dabblers. Some are just dreamers. And some, despite their brains, ambition, and sincerity, aren't focused on the right thing for the market. No wonder, then, that many experienced managers have trouble lending moral support to the aspiring innovators in their midst and can barely keep from groaning when these same types ask for extra people, time, and funding.

Your question, however, brings up another point, and one we'd say is even more critical to business success than the proper care and feeding of designated innovation gurus. It's about how and where innovation actually happens, a topic, we've discovered, of some confusion. Everywhere we speak around the world, to groups of every sort, we hear people talk about innovation in its most glamorized form—as a revolutionary breakthrough that changes entire industries and rewrites consumer behavior. We hear questions about how companies should organize to generate the next iPod and manage their people to produce, or attract, the next Sergey Brin or Larry Page.

Such queries are all well and good. Sometimes the innovation war is won by a brand-new killer app or a genius yelling "Eureka!" Far more often, innovation doesn't arrive like a thunderbolt. It emerges incrementally, in bits and chugs, forged by a mixed bag of coworkers from up, down, and across an organization, sweating and wrangling it out in the trenches.

Glamorous, hardly. Powerful, absolutely.

Now, make no mistake. Such iterative, bottom-up, collaborative innovation doesn't happen by accident. Indeed, it can only occur when managers encourage, and the whole organization buys into, a mind-set nearly religious in its zeal. This mind-set's central belief is simple: that innovation is so deeply ingrained in everyone's job—yes, everyone's—that employees arrive each day thinking, "Is there a better way to do everything we do around here? How can we improve on our products and services?" It's a mind-set that makes people excited to share new ideas and to embrace the notion that you only win as an organization when everyone's brain is engaged.

Managers, of course, will see this mind-set take hold as they reward it with raises and bonuses and celebrate it, making role models of those who bring bright ideas forward, no matter where they find them. But the innovation mind-set is most effective when it's coupled with an institutionalized process that draws together employees from different levels and functions, and, with a facilitator, gets them talking, debating, and problem-solving as a team. Some companies call these sessions "workouts." Others refer to them as "innovation councils." By any name, their purpose is the same—to bring an innovation debate to the people closest to the products, services, and processes. So often they're the real geniuses, and the ideas they generate collectively, perhaps ironically, so often leapfrog rivals focused on that one big breakthrough.

Your letter happened to arrive the same day as this one from a reader in Chicago: "How can I suggest a new idea I have for a product to my manager when I'm not in R&D and the product would only benefit another business in our company?" How sad, we thought, another place where managers send the message that innovation comes from the chosen few. Yes, they must play a big role. But imagine the possibilities and the unleashed power, not to mention the fun, when organizations engage everyone else in the process, too.

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