Innovation - Top Down or Bottom Up?


Innovation has been a key driver within businesses for many years now and has received a lot of attention, as though it is the saviour and future of all companies. So what does it really mean and has it become so generic that people are simply using it as an alternative to problem solving?

My recent experiences have led me to a slight mind blank both on where innovation comes from, what it is and how you get people to think about it.

Innovation is “the action or process of innovating to create a new method, idea or product”. I guess that answers my first statement of what is it!
That said there are many different types of innovation, I won’t talk about all of them in detail here but point you to this website, where they are listed and briefly explained. My post today is more focussed on my experiences and how I’m stuck in coming up with ideas on encouraging this.

I have seen many examples now of how innovation, whether it be systems, processes or general efficiency savings have come from the ‘managerial level’ of an organisation. That’s not to say this is right or wrong but there are limitations with this attitude; it becomes dictatorial, stifles creative thinking at the front-line and can prevent the best ideas from being put forward through fear of rejection.

The best innovations I have seen haven’t been created at work or at an off-site management event, they have been created by individuals going about their daily lives or talking to friends over coffee.

I'm sure they won’t mind me mentioning them but one of my previous employer's sister company, Nexus Engage, have an exceptional record at innovation both externally for their clients and internally for their own purposes, from new systems to creative working environments, and they never stop going. How they have done this still baffles me today; simply because it seems to have been created without really too much effort. Everyone loves going to work, perhaps a happy mind promotes creativity but nonetheless this is a place to envy when it comes to innovation (among other things). As Steve Jobs quoted “…It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” Nearly all of the best ideas at RMG have come from the staff, the directors may plant a seed into the business, but from there it’s all about the that really know how best to get things done.

Another great example of Innovation recently came form one of my clients who asked if I may be able to help them in getting an idea off the ground. It goes a little like this…..

“Joe, I’ve got an idea, it involves you contacting various science units at Universities to see if any of them would be interested in working with us to create a polymer based plastic that is solid (without air pockets) but doesn’t have the same heat resonating properties as traditional polymer based products. (in case you didn't know they get really hot in direct sunlight and you can’t walk on them!)”

What the hell do I do with that?! Nonetheless I am doing my best and ask around the research departments to see if any of the are specialising in plastics, needless to say not much luck as yet! That said this was a great bit of thinking, not in terms of identifying the need for a product like this on the market but the solution to the problem really impressed me.

My current problem

Working with a personnel heavy business that want to do things ‘quicker, cheaper, better’ in order to scale without having to continue headcount, mainly because space is running out pretty fast in the office.

So how does this happen? At the moment technology of some sort seems to be the obvious answer; having all the menial tasks done an AI system. Is this focus correct? Only time will tell but from my experiences so far the drive for this approach is coming from the top, this is creating a small divide where ideas are seen as experiments from those that may not know the nuances of how an idea may operate in practice.

This business needs to create an environment of creative thinking and innovation from the front-line. This is easier said than done, firstly you need to create some incentive to do so, then you need to teach people to ask ‘why’ and finally teach them how to think of a solution. That might sound simple but the hardest part is getting people to question existing practices and then think about what they could do rather than asking what they should do.

This is where I am very much stuck! In all honesty I have limited experience of creating ‘innovative environments’ and encouraging people to make their jobs that little bit easier. Personally I don’t think that technology is the answer, as Peter Thiel (author of Zero to One) said “The most valuable businesses of the coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete”

So my next steps are to try to create an ‘innovation strategy’ that will hopefully result in a reward culture for innovation, that succeeds in assisting the company objectives.

My final note would be to say you can’t succeed unless you try; an idea not working when trying to innovate is not failure, it is a learning experience!

All the best