Democratising Innovation with Technology

Democratising Innovation with Technology

As organisations emerge from the highly challenging lockdown period, a unique opportunity exists to design and implement a better way of doing business, embracing the changes that arise from significantly increased remote and home working, and adopting a more agile approach to organisational change.

In an associated article we touched on the increased VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) environment within which organisations are now operating , and the rapidly growing need to innovate better to succeed in that environment.  We presented our thoughts on foundational activities that organisations should consider to better prepare themselves for those innovation challenges that lie ahead.

In this, and subsequent articles in this section, we move from the “foundational” aspects to the “architecture” – focusing on the design of an innovation ecosystem that might be better placed to  capitalise on the opportunities that will emerge over the coming years as the world around us changes at lightning speed.


The 'Old' - Good Enough?

As we look back to the days before Spring 2020, many organisations are likely to recognise that their innovation ecosystem was barely adequate for the pre-COVID-19 days, let-alone the very different business world that we now see.

Many organisations have relied heavily on central innovation teams but struggled to make headway in driving innovation capability across the business.  Others have dabbled in innovation initiatives but been disappointed by the poor return that the see.  Many have thought about starting an innovation programme but have put it off for another day.  Few (though they do exist) could truly say that that their innovation ecosystem has been, and remains, ready for the challenges ahead.

An innovation ecosystem thrives when the right communities and groups can be brought together easily, rapidly, and with sufficient autonomy, to solve difficult problems.  Anyone who has worked in the innovation space and experienced its challenges, nuances & pitfalls will tell you that you can never have too many ideas in your quest for identifying the next ground-breaking product or service, or the best solution to a significant issue or threat. 

Maximising the number of ideas that enter the ‘innovation funnel’ will significantly increase the likelihood of finding that one ‘gem’ of an idea that can deliver the meaningful outcome that’s being sought.


The 'New' - Better?

Luckily, we live in an age where the size of the innovation funnel can be maximised using technology solutions that can significantly extend the reach and effectiveness of the innovation ecosystem – rapidly bringing together the right Crowds (however small or large they might be) to solve the most pressing problems and challenges at the right time through collaboration and team-working.

So how can an innovation ecosystem be designed that works best with your own organisation’s (normally complex) structure.  How can a business create innovation communities and channels that are most likely to have a significant impact on the goals of not only the innovation programme itself, but the overall success of the organisation?

And with the largest move to distributed working that any of us have seen in our lifetime, what considerations must be taken to ensure that the ecosystem promotes, encourages and supports involvement from the entire workforce wherever they happen to perform their work – be it a physical office setting, a virtual (remote, or ‘on-the-move’ etc) setting, or ultimately a hybrid setting that will be much more common as we move forward?

If your organisation has already accepted that innovation must not be the preserve of the senior management team, then the first part of the battle has already been won.  Democratising the sourcing of ideas from all employees (and from other stakeholders, where appropriate) will make it more likely that the organisation can successfully drive continuous improvement and uncover genuine breakthroughs from strategic innovation challenges. 

Your organisation has put its ‘line-in-the-sand’ by stating to all employees, regardless of their role and level of seniority - or how distributed their workplace environment might be - that their idea deserves equal attention and opportunity and will be evaluated in a consistent manner.

How, then, do you bring your people together to submit their ideas effectively?


A Crowd - More than just People

A key aspect of any innovation ecosystem is the community structure and associated governance processes that are put in place to make positive change most likely to happen.   

When an organisation assembles a community of people (which we’ll refer to as a ‘crowd’) to do anything there needs to be a common purpose, or a mission, behind why they’re being brought together in the first place.  That common purpose must be clearly communicated to all members, so that they are left in absolutely no doubt as to why this specific crowd has been formed and what the organisation expects of it.  When supplemented by a video message from the senior leaders, the collective power of the crowds’ involvement can be greatly amplified.

For would-be idea contributors in the crowd, demonstrating in a clear and unambiguous manner how their submissions will be evaluated and taken forward (or not) is key to creating confidence, building-in fairness and driving engagement.  Communicating a clear ‘line-of-sight’ that demonstrates how ideas contributed within that crowd will create value for the whole business should be a priority aim of the crowd owner, and the use of codified / categorised / pictorial evaluation measures that clearly visualise the line-of-sight can be an enormously powerful tool - the human brain helps us make sense of the world when we can see clearly how objects and information are categorised; this is just as true for ideas that we submit to solve the innovation challenges and initiatives launched by our company. 

The process by which the crowd is governed requires a fine balance and an appropriate level of autonomy.  Too much governance will stifle creativity, create a steady decline in innovation momentum, and ultimately lead to loss of confidence in the whole process amongst members.  Too little governance will lead to decisions being made that don’t align to strategy, increased time, effort and cost to implement ideas, and can lead to a dangerous ‘them-and-us’ culture in which ideas from the same people always seem to be the ones that are taken forward.     A governance model that is able to support a balanced approach through democratisation of innovation initiatives is a key goal that should be sought, particularly with a growing distributed workforce.

Additionally, the audience of the crowd itself is a crucial consideration.  In its simplest design, the audience might be the full organisation – i.e. all employees who have some means of being informed about new innovation challenges and an ability to contribute their own ideas. 

For small organisations the ‘all-employee’ approach is commonly found - with a limited set of commercial offerings and associated innovation challenges to solve, such organisations could rightly expect that most of the workforce should; a) have at least some level of interest in most of the innovation challenges that that have been launched; and b) be able, with some regularity, to contribute ideas that help solve those challenges in a meaningful way.


Designing for Scale-Up

As the organisation size moves up the scale however, from 100 to 500, 1000, 5000, 25000 employees and above, silos (often large) of functional expertise inevitably begin to appear.  Such silos might be separated by product or service-line, department or geography.

Irrespective of the reason behind the silo, the organisation has assembled large groups of people together, often (at least in the past) in the physical world, who are expert in delivering that specific product, service, or business process, and possibly delivering in a particular manner that best suits a specific geographical territory. 

To operate effectively, the organisation will normally have introduced a hierarchical approach to strategic objectives setting, with each part of the hierarchy working towards meeting its own goals through its own set of lower-level strategic objectives and KPIs that feed up to the organisation’s top line mission.

With a more distributed workforce and a greater need for agility that comes from a world with rapidly increasing VUCA impacts, it is more important than ever, therefore, that the strategic objectives at all levels of the organisation can be built upon as an enabler for innovation, rather than an inhibitor.

Careful attention, therefore, needs to be paid to the design of innovation crowds, taking account of these pre-existing strategic objectives, an appropriate governance model and a crowd membership approach which supports the existing structure of the organisation, in all of its hierarchical and cross-functional forms, and contributes towards the overall mission at every level. 

Organisational-design within the innovation programme therefore starts to take a front-seat when considering how to get the best out your most important asset – your entire talent pool of employees.

In further articles in this section, we consider in more detail the intricacies of taking an organisational-design approach to Innovation crowds, from transient (single-use) and single-tier (all-employee) crowds through to multi-tier (business-unit aligned) and cross-functional crowds -  looking at the pros and cons of each approach, and exploring how a blended model is likely to deliver a best-of-all-worlds solution.