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

How do you view strategy?


Is your thinking logical, motivational, balanced or long-term?

Having witnessed a number of changes across different organisations I thought it a good time to share my view on some of these and how, in hindsight, they could have been carried out better, even if the strategic decision was the same.

Let's firstly ask why we carry out strategic decisions and make changes within the organisation? To benefit the company, make more profit, increase external perception of the business, or to enhance the morale of staff and many, many more that I'm sure you can list.
Whatever your reason behind making a decision I would like to think it is always done with the best intentions and I'm sure you would like to think you took a balance view and considered the pro's and con's.

Let me ask you a question. Would you consider that analysing the Pro's and Con's of a scenario is the same as analysing the impact of how your decision will be received by others? I'm not saying that you need to involve all employees in any decision-making process, that would be ridiculous, but considering the decision in different frames could be key to success or failure.

What do I mean by frames?

Well lets consider the introduction of a new training contract that is designed to increase staff retention and provide them with double the number of paid training days out of work. The trade-off being they have to stay with you for two years rather than one after the training is completed. Sounds like a win all round on the face of it. The company increases staff retention and is giving a huge amount of investment to the employee in return, however lets consider it from a different view.

How would you feel if you were hamstrung into a two-year tie in period with a 100% claw back on any training fees? Most of us don't know what will happen one year from now, let alone in 3 or 4. Consider framing the issue as if you were one of the employees, are you really putting yourself in their shoes when making this unbiased rational decision.

So how about another scenario....

A decision is made to either re-brand the business or alter the 'company strap-line' in order to win new business, appeal to different market segments or fit in with current fashions. All of these are great reasons to re-brand, but how was the message communicated and who communicated the message? Was it left to just filter out via a message down through middle-management, or should it be communicated by the figure-head of the business; the individual that employees look to as their leader.

Here's not to say that all messages should be communicated on a one to one basis but have you considered that a change like this may have a different impact on each person. On a cultural level, they may consider it a step away from their engagement or appreciation by the company. Frame the change from a cultural perspective and consider the best way of giving a message, if you thought of the idea as the CEO who better to tell people; you will have the passion and charisma behind the decision.

The key to successful strategic change or repositioning is truly understanding the impact on all those it may touch. If you have always looked at decisions from an efficiency perspective or cost saving perspective, its likely you may never realise the true potential you possess.

I am currently undertaking a number of projects with companies who are looking at this type of change and would be more than happy to share my experiences.

In the meantime here is a link to a HBR articles on why strategy fails,