Companies often are protective of the innovation process, taking steps to protect their ideas from “outsiders” and trying to ensure competitors don’t get even a whiff of what they’re thinking.
The problem is that such a mentality ends up shutting out so many people, even from inside the organization, that the ideas aren’t as innovative or as viable as they would be if more people were included.
Recent research backs up the idea that innovation needs to be open to more sources of inspiration, and innovation experts like Nilofer Merchant argue that companies are missing golden opportunities when they don’t invite all employees to suggest creative products or processes.
“What we must all realize is that there are a lot of people – like women or people of color – who have been dismissed, who are considered nobodies,” Merchant says. “But it’s the nobodies who are changing the world.”
A new study on developing an innovation pipeline offers insights that surprise Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, who analyzed five years of data from 154 public companies with more than 3.5 million workers. The data comes from employees who used Spigit, an idea management system that allows employees to post ideas and get feedback or “likes” – a similar format to the one on Facebook.
Still, while employees were able to vote or make comments, it was company management who ultimately decided which idea would be developed.
The key variable in looking at the data was the number of ideas given the green light by management divided by the total number of active users in the system. The results showed that companies with an innovation culture – those showing a higher number of ideas approved – generated better ideas and were more organized and better able to take action on them.
Interestingly, what the data also found is that innovation has variables that move independently of whether the organization is looking for incremental or disruptive innovation, the type of industry or size of the business.
What the research reveals is that if companies want more ideas and to become better able to scale them, then they are going to have to invite more participants. The data reveals that businesses spur one idea for every four participants.
Further, companies need to generate lots of ideas more frequently and have lots of people ready to vet those ideas and encourage discussions, research shows.
A final piece of the innovation process finds that diversity is key for a successful innovation system. However, that doesn’t mean just engineers or other problem-solvers from different geographic areas – it means employees from all levels of the organization, including support staff.
Merchant, who was awarded the Future Thinker Award from Thinkers50, also advocates that organizations and their leaders must learn to embrace the unique ideas that can come from all levels of an organization, no matter the person’s job title.
In her book, “The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World,” Merchant says that too many times people like administrators (she once served in that role at Apple), are told “they don’t matter and don’t really count.”
But each employee has a uniqueness or an “onlyness” that means he or she can offer a unique perspective or idea to an organization that can really make a difference, she says.
“Today, networks offer a new way to get things done,” she writes in her book. “Any collection of people can pursue ideas together without organizational authority or hierarchies. When value creation is networked, the distinct ideas, judgments and decision making of individual players matter more as the fundamental building blocks of value creation.”
However, organizations are still important as employees find their unique voice and ideas, she says. That’s because most people still cling to organizational structures -- 61% of society today conforms rather than innovates, she explains., so most people truly want to belong.
“With belonging comes the right to occupy space, to contribute your ideas,” she explains. “This explains why some people are able to make a difference and others seem to give up on their own ideas. Someone’s ability to contribute that which only they can is not based on their boldness, or their status, but far more affected by how they belong and what connects them.”
Kristof De Wulf is co-founder and CEO of InSites Consulting, a global consumer insight and collaboration agency. He argues that while human beings are curious by nature, they often don’t know that they are victims of their own human limitations. Coupled with management practices that are often set up to block new ideas, and a company can become mired in its own institutional and individual biases.
To combat that tendency, he recommends:
“The open world is here to stay and expected to further accelerate. The future will be less about money, power or size, but more about agility, networking and sharing,” De Wulf says.