In an elegant piece in Harvard Business Review, Whitney Johnson points to a problem that many innovative companies face: an excess of good ideas. Obviously, only a fraction of them can be pursued. But what are we going to do with those innovators whose ideas weren’t selected for implementation? How shall we prevent them from growing “angry, jealous, or bitter” (in Whitney Johnson’s words)? How shall we protect the corporate innovation culture from being poisoned by the residual resentment?
Whitney Johnson suggests two approaches. The first, conventional, is to acknowledge the input of the people whose ideas were rejected and then engage them in the implementation of selected ones. The second, somewhat radical, is to terminate the employment of those who have failed to overcome bad feelings after their rejection.
Wow! For a company that generates many ideas that could lead to a lot of terminations.
I feel amazed with how many people sincerely believe that the “we-have-too-many-good-ideas” syndrome is incumbent on the corporate innovation process. It is not. The “excess of good ideas” only happens when companies adopt the bottom-up model of corporate innovation. In this model, the focus is on ideas, which are collected on the ground and then channeled upward. I already wrote about serious flaws of the bottom-up model of innovation and don’t want to repeat these arguments here. Suffice is to say that this approach will serve only mature (innovation-wise) organizations; for organizations with a shorter history of innovation programs–and these are still in majority today–the bottom-up model of innovation doesn’t work.
What is the alternative? The alternative is the top-down approach. In the top-down model of innovation, the focus is on problems. The company’s leadership formulates problems that are strategic to the organization and then moves them down the ladder for employees to generate solutions to these problems. Again, I refer the readers to my previous post describing the benefits of the top-down model. The important point here is that companies practicing this approach don’t suffer from “too many ideas” because having many good solutions to a limited number of important problems is a blessing, not a curse. Equally important–and very relevant to what Whitney Johnson’s talking about–is that giving specific feedback to the employees about the value of their solutions is much less “toxic” than explaining to them why their ideas were rejected. Regardless of whether an employee “wins” or “loses” in a solution contest, he or she feels engaged and appreciated.
Why then does the bottom-up model still remain so widespread? Unfortunately, sticking to it allows the company’s executive leadership adopt a hands-off approach to the innovation process. It’s so easy to announce an open season for ideas and then claim that the collective wisdom of the whole organization is now harnessed. But it takes time and effort to formulate the company’s innovation strategy, align it with the corporate strategic goals, identify key problems to be solved and articulate criteria of successful solutions. So the “too-many-ideas” problem is not an inevitable toxic by-product of the innovation process, as Whitney Johnson wants us to believe; it is a result of a wrong innovation strategy.
Or let me put it differently. Does your company struggle with the excess of good ideas? Blame your CEO.
Image credit: www.businessinsider.com