Innovating from the Bottom-Up

Innovation is definitely a complex endeavor that requires the orchestration of multiple dimensions. Without doubt, unless an organization's leadership has thought out the structures, processes, metrics, rewards systems, and knowledge and skills required to advance their innovation agenda, they will not be successful.

However, this is not to say that there's nothing to be done at the front-line of organizations to advance innovation. Interestingly, many instances of innovation occur not because of management, but despite of management!

In this Blog, I'll be sharing some ideas on how innovation can be driven from the bottom-up. It's a long awaited complement to all the important research and literature on how to drive innovation from the top-down.

Let's see what develops.

Ulises Pabon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

If you want to think big, start small.

That's the title of chapter 38 from Alan M. Webber's (Co-founder of Fast Company Magazine) RULES OF THUMB; 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself. In it, Alan succinctly presents the now legendary story of Muhammad Yanus. What began as a $27 loan to liberate 42 people in the village of Jobra, India from loan sharks mushroomed into the Grameen Bank and a Noble Prize (see related blog entry below on April 5, 2009).

In Alan's words: "... Yanus didn't set out from home one morning with the goal of ending poverty in Bangladesh or raising tens of millions of people around the world out of poverty. He wasn't thinking about starting a bank or a social movement. He certainly wasn't game-planning to win the Noble Peace Prize. He saw a woman in a village who needed help and, decided he could not not help her."

Rule 38: "If you want to think big, start small" resonates in the heart and mind of Bottom-Up innovators. The point is: whatever you feel passionate about and compelled to drive, do it! Welcome experimentation. Don't over-engineer a solution or wait for perfection. Alan's advice is "Start small. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn't work, change what you're doing until you find something that does work."

Bottom-Up Innovation is all about starting small. We need to remind ourselves, in the heat of the battle, to never underestimate the repercussions of small actions.

While RULES OF THUMB is not a manifesto for Bottom-Up Innovators, it's packed with good advice and definitely a recommended read.

If you want to think big, start small.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Bottom-Up innovator was killed today!

It wasn’t nice. He had the potential of becoming one of the best. He was, for sure, creative and innovative; he had the curiosity of a child and the spirit of an inventor. He was on his way to cross the threshold to Bottom-Up Innovation mastery. This was an important step. Once taken, he would have achieved full comprehension of the force behind Bottom-Up Innovation. He would have become immune to stagnated cultures and slow bureaucracies. He would have fully realized that no matter the circumstances, he was free to create and invent. He would have felt what all Bottom-Up Innovation masters feel: Power!

Yet, the organizational cancer had taken its toll. The bombardment of office politics, incompetent management, turf fights, short-sighted leadership, risk-adverse policies, and bureaucratic procedures was too much for him to take in.

The early signs were too subtle to notice: frustration, anger, and disappointment. A dose of fresh air, a good book, some time off; all of these could have been enough to reinvigorate the spirit in the early stages of the attack. Unfortunately, left unattended, frustration, anger, and disappointment create a vicious circle almost impossible to overcome. So, even when one would have thought that my friend would have survived, the silent killer, slowly but surely, delivered one blow after another.

He called me yesterday evening. I wasn’t sure what annoyed me the most, the static on the line or the helplessness I felt in face of my friend’s sense of defeat. Full of melancholy he blurted out: “I’m fed up! It’s not worth it! There’s no use trying to help! What the hell! They want a yes-man, they’ll get a yes-man!”

And alas, the killer chalked another victim on his wall. My friend lost, his company lost, and we all lost. For when a potential Bottom-Up Innovator is killed, we are all left without his or her potential creations.

As enlightening and fulfilling Bottom-Up Innovation can be, practicing it in backward organizational cultures is tough. Prepare for a difficult battle. Learn to read the cultural undercurrents of your company. Under the best circumstances, prepare for challenges and resistance to change. Under the worst, anticipate curses, political ploys, and vicious attacks. Realize that while there may be greener pastures elsewhere – cultures receptive to ideas and improvement – becoming a Bottom-Up Innovator will always demand strength and fortitude.

And take note, when the time comes to face the silent killer – and I assure you, if you are trying to innovate from the bottom-up, he will come – look him in the eye, and smile. He hates it!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Deliberate versus Emerging Strategies

I enjoy playing chess. I learned to play as a child and remained fairly active through college. Once I graduated, I played less and less and had virtually abandoned chess as a hobby.

Our local Borders store changed that. Some years ago, someone took the initiative of setting up a board and a chess clock on one of the tables at the in-store Cafe. Today, Borders has become a meeting place for chess enthusiasts. Players - from beginners to experienced - take turns "pushing wood" and pursuing the elusive checkmate. The non-published rules are simple: you play 5 minute chess; you win, you stay seated; you lose, you stand up. Challengers stand watching the game and waiting for the loser to abandon the table. If a player needs to leave and take his or her set (yes, that's an 8 year old girl you see playing against someone at least 5 times her age!), there's usually someone else with an available set and clock.

To make sure chess players don't monopolize all of the Cafe's tables, there's an unwritten agreement with Borders that only two tables can be used for chess. This has turned out to be a win-win for all the involved stakeholders. Chess players have an impromptu "club" to congregate at, Cafe consumers have over 96% of the tables available to them, and Borders enjoys the ancillary business this reunion center generates.

Here's the question: Was this in Borders' strategic plan? Would you have found initiative 5.3-3B of the plan to read: Establish informal chess club to promote traffic at Cafe? Of course not! Or, think what would have happened if when the first chess player placed a chess set on the table, the Cafe manager would have come up and requested that the set be removed because "these tables are for the exclusive use of people that come to consume foods at the Cafe"?

The impromptu chess club is what Henry Mintzberg calls an emergent strategy. The idea is that if you were to review a company's successes, you would find that some of the successes would be attributed to deliberate strategies - strategies that were thought out in a strategic planning process. However, other success would have to be attributed to strategies that were not formulated in a formal process but that emerged as the organization engaged in its business. In other words, these strategies grew from the bottom-up!

3M's Post-It(R) Notes and Scotchguard(TM) were emerging strategies. They were accidents that occurred in the right context. The context was 3M's sensitivity and receptivity to emerging strategies.

Emerging strategies can be powerful growth engines. When they come from customers, it's a double whammy since the element of co-creation is also present, creating a strong link between customer and company. But it takes an open mind to listen to and entertain emerging strategies. Since, by definition, they are neither in the strategic plan nor in the budget, a manager fixated on deliberate strategies can easily exterminate them. Seeing their potential requires an open mind. After all, "this is a Cafe, not a chess club!"

I've refreshed my chess, to the extent that I'm finally winning some games. And yes, every so often I do buy a snack at the Cafe. Emerging strategies are worth pursuing. They are a manifestation of Bottom-Up innovation. When properly capitalized on, they may well help your company checkmate the competition.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bottom-up Innovation and the S-Curve

Researchers from many disciplines have used some form of the “S Curve” (illustrated in the diagram above) to depict grow and maturity in systems. The essence of the S-curve, as applied to organizational development, is that organizations live through three major phases. Phase 1 is the Inception or Formation Phase, typically characterized by an innovative leader that drives the organization with a new idea. Creativity and experimentation abound during this phase because the people in the organization are trying to figure out how to be successful. Once the “formula” for success is discovered, the organization enters Phase 2 – the Growth Phase. As the organization grows and becomes more and more successful, the “formula” for success becomes ingrained into the organization’s culture. Since everything around us tells us that what we’re doing is correct, change becomes more and more difficult. People promoting change are labeled as problematic and are welcomed with the proverbial: “You can not argue with success!” However, to the surprise of some (typically in management), sooner or later the organization’s growth rate starts to decline; doing more of the same thing does not help. As the organization approaches Phase 3 – the Renewal Phase – it is faced with two fundamental options: reinvention or death. The path to death takes many forms. For some it’s an obsessive pursuit of efficiency and cost cutting with little investment on generating new products or services. If it’s 1920 and you’re still manufacturing horse whips while people are buying cars, I don’t care how quality perfect or inexpensive your whips are, unless you reinvent your business, you’re going to disappear. For others, death is the unavoidable consequence of denial; a negation of customer preferences; or a blindness to an emerging need.

Organizations, however, are not destined to die. The organization’s stakeholders can take upon the task to reinvent or renew the organization. What we’ve learned working with companies in the midst of Phase 2 or Phase 3 is that when organizations welcome or develop a culture of bottom-up innovators, the road to renewal becomes, almost, second nature. I say “welcome or develop” because what we’ve found is that creating a bottom-up innovation culture is a responsibility of both the organization’s leaders as well as its constituents.

Most companies come to be because of a top-down innovation culture. It’s the company’s founder or founders who had the great idea; who were willing to risk their time and money to start the enterprise. It’s these entrepreneurs who are driving the innovation effort. Phase 1 is the playground of Top-down innovation; hence, valuing this approach is to be expected. However, if employees accept this framework as the exclusive source of innovation, as the company moves towards Phase 2, they will become accomplices to the eventual company’s demise. Unless founders and leaders are bombarded with ideas, they will come to conclude that the workforce has none. Unless the founders and leaders are challenged with alternate perspectives, they will come to believe that theirs is the only perspective there is. Unless the founders and leaders see evidence of leadership in the ranks, they will come to believe that leadership only resides on the top. So, developing a bottom-up innovation culture cannot be left, exclusively, to the company leaders.

There are some organizations where this learning has already occurred. Having lived and realized the importance of bottom-up innovation, leaders make it a point to put in place policies and practices that welcome innovation from the ranks. However, in many other organizations, we see a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy taking place: since management is still immersed in the Top-down approach to innovation with which it started, front-line employees limit themselves to following; and since front-line employees limit themselves to following, management concludes that Top-down innovation is the only viable option available.

Granted, this is a tough environment to work in; and it takes guts to break this vicious circle. However, understand this: for leaders to accept, welcome, and eventually promote a bottom-up innovation culture, the cycle has to be interrupted someplace, and unless there is evidence to do so, this interruption is unlikely to come from the top! The unfortunate reality is that in these cases, the value of bottom-up innovation has to be learned by its leaders; it has to be evidenced by what the leaders see and hear in the ranks of their teams; it has to be realized in their minds as a consequence of what they experience in their daily life. And it’s our job, as bottom-up innovators, to create the evidence for its case.

There’s a second aspect that relates bottom-up innovation to the S-curve. We’ve discovered that an army of bottom-up innovators are the best early warning system for organizations approaching the peak of Phase 2. Recall that as you approach Phase 3, everything around you looks great! Sales are up; market share is up; you’re growing left and right. Unless you have multiple channels to the world, you’re likely to miss that new development that appeared in magazine X, or that late-night news clip on channel WXYZ, or the new consumption trend neighbors of District Y are engaging in. Bottom-up innovators help fill that role. They become tentacles to the market, an extended radar screen that detects opportunities and threats, many times way before the marketing or research departments do.

A final word of caution for those of you working in a “Bottom-up friendly” innovation environment: once your company reinvents itself, you’re back to Phase 1. This means that all the temptations of a Top-down exclusive world will resurface. Just because your organization is amenable to Bottom-up innovation today doesn’t mean it will always be. The delicate balance between Top-down and Bottom-up innovation needs to be constantly nurtured by all. An old quote by an unknown source comes to mind: there is plenty of room at the top – but no place to sit down.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is Bottom-up Innovation = Anarchy?

At first site, the line between bottom-up innovation and anarchy may seem blurry. After all, if people are free to innovate from the bottom-up, it would seem that anarchy is inevitable. Anyone and everyone would be free to invent as they wish.

The difference lies in two dimensions. First and foremost, anarchists’ primary concern is destroying; bottom-up innovators are engaged in building, in adding value, in constructing. That, by itself, is enough to draw the line.

However, there is a second dimension that, particularly in an organizational context, deserves mentioning. Let me digress for a moment to establish a framework for its understanding.

Organizations are a great invention. Through organized effort, humanity has been able to accomplish outcomes that no man or woman on his or her own would have achieved. The primary factor in an organization is its purpose. If we were to come together and attempt to form a new organization and, in the process, discover that we can not agree on a common purpose, the whole exercise of putting together an organization becomes futile. In the absence of a common purpose you don’t have an organization; an archipelago of good intentions, perhaps, but not an organization.

Since the organization, as such, has no consciousness – it is not a being or a live entity – the concept of an organization’s purpose or mission resides in the minds of the humans that form it. For sure, we later build statements and symbols to represent it and communicate it. Nevertheless, the essence of an organization’s mission or purpose is a commonly understood and agreed upon purpose by the people that form it.

This realization has an important implication for new comers to an established organization. As a potential new comer, your first measure must be to understand the organization’s vision, mission (purpose), and values. You should then reflect on your own vision, purpose, and values. If, and only if, you find alignment and synergy, then you should consider joining the organization. How does this relate to bottom-up innovators?

Bottom-up innovators live by the call of “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!” The order of the three verbs is important. Their first priority is to lead. That means, using their creativity to invent a future that moves the organization towards its vision, helps it fulfill its mission and embodies its values. Lead also means that when a bottom-up innovator perceives the organization is heading towards the wrong direction, he or she will challenge the status quo, raise the pertinent issues and voice his or her opinion to help co-create a new future.

When, and if, bottom-up innovators choose not to take the lead, their second responsibility is to “follow”. They work to understand and contribute to the organization’s innovation intent and strategy. Bottom-up innovators accept the full responsibilities that “following” implies: fully understanding the rationale behind the direction, studying its implications, collaborating with others, giving their best, etc. They see “following” not as a passive or submissive stance but as a proactive and productive endeavor. Most bottom-up innovators are both excellent leaders and followers, changing roles easily, in line with the demands of the moment.

When bottom-up innovators realize that they can neither lead nor follow, they know its time to “get out of the way”. This behavior is not equal to evasion. On the contrary, getting out of the way is the responsible act of reflecting on one’s own philosophy, assessing one’s vision and goals, and pursuing to advance them within the right organization. To remain in an organization that is not aligned with your vision, purpose, values, and philosophy – and choose not to lead change within it – is the worst act of irresponsibility and cowardice one can commit. Bottom-up innovators that choose neither to lead nor follow, quickly get out of the way.

The unwritten policy of “lead, follow, or get out of the way” creates an invisible framework that aligns bottom-up innovations with the organization’s intent. It becomes – in chaos theory – the “strange attractor” that allows for random non-linear events to emerge and contribute to the system’s overarching purpose.

Bottom-up innovation is not anarchy. For sure, an organization where bottom-up innovation abounds may be harder to manage than one that operates under a strict top-down autocracy. However, the potential for growth, renewal and competitiveness that bottom-up innovation brings to the table is well worth its price.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Are you aware of your value field?

Work is full of activities. We receive requests from customers, read reports, move stuff from one place to another, go to meetings, gather materials, complete forms, etc., etc., etc.

However, only a fraction of those activities actually add value to our clients. (Follow this link for a discussion of non-value-added activities at

Once we realize that a lot of what we do does not add value, we become more sensitive, and can easily recognize, when and where we are actually engaging in value-added activity. If you're a supervisor, the spot you're at when you're face-to-face providing direction or feed-back to an employee is your value field; the distance you walked to get there is not. If you're a car mechanic, the precise area in the motor you're working at, is your value field; the area you move around to get your tools is not. Your value field is the exact "micro-spot" you're at when you are adding value.

Bottom-up innovators recognize their value fields as prime targets for innovation. They know they have a high degree of influence at their value field and that improving what they do at their value field translates into improvements to the organization’s offering or value proposition.

Many top-down improvement efforts concentrate on eliminating non-value-added activities. There is nothing wrong with this. To be sure, significant cost and efficiency improvements can be achieved by eliminating non-value-added activities. However, by concentrating on their circle of influence, bottom-up innovators don’t have to wait for top-down programs to ignite an innovation revolution. They focus their creative thinking towards what they do within their value fields and how they do it. Since they are naturally empowered within their value field, they feel free to challenge the status quo and invent the future.

I’ll come back to this concept in the near future. Meanwhile, think about your work and try to identify your value fields. Be specific. Once you’ve identified your value field, you’ll be one step closer to becoming a bottom-up innovator.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Ultimate Resource

What does a farmer in Peru have in common with a software engineer in China? Or with a piano artisan in Estonia? Or with a housewife in India?

They were all featured in a National Geographic In Focus documentary titled The Ultimate Resource. The main thesis of the documentary is that people - individuals - are the main resource of this planet. And that when individuals are empowered with the freedom to own property and the freedom to exchange the fruit of their labor in a free market, they can escape the chains of poverty and lead a productive life.

Among others, the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, is featured in the film. Muhammad Yunus invented micro-lending; and has helped hundreds of families in India launch small businesses through his Grameen Bank.

As I watched the documentary, I couldn't avoid connecting the ideas exposed in the film with the concept of Bottom-Up Innovation. Is there a lesson here for management? Why do we continue to run organizations as a country under totalitarian rule? Why do many managers speak about empowerment but act as dictators? What would be possible if organizations embraced the ideas of a free market?

It just dawned on me that these same questions have been addressed before by Russel Ackoff in his 1994 book: The Democratic Corporation. Back then, when I read it, I was impressed by his idea. However, I read it from a perspective of Systems Thinking and Organizational Transformation. I'll need to pull it from my collection and review it with the eyes of Bottom-Up Innovation. I'm sure I'll find in it a treasure or two.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Back from the ACA 2009 Conference in Philadelphia

The 2009 conference of the American Creativity Association took place in Philadelphia last week. The cold front brought about 8 inches of snow and impeded some presenters from arriving on time. Nevertheless, as always, we had our share of leading thinkers in the field.

This was the first time the conference was held in Philly. It gave me an opportunity to visit Independence Hall. If you've ever questioned the power of ideas, you need to visit this place. The key debates that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States took place in this simple and plain room. No complex audio-visual equipment; no PowerPoint slides; just great ideas! Talk about bottom-up innovation!

I delivered my presentation - Innovating from the Bottom - Up - on Monday. We discussed some of the attitudes and behaviors exemplified by bottom-up innovators. These include:

1. The confidence that they can be creative (creativity is not an attribute of the few).
2. The ability to brainstorm "in slow motion", building on ideas as new experiences unfold.
3. An inclination towards 2nd order change, re-framing problems and finding unique solutions.
4. A strong "T" profile, combining depth of knowledge in one discipline with the ability to work with people from different fields of knowledge.
5. A predisposition to experiment and discover new knowledge.

We also talked about how the present forces of networks, co-creation, open innovation, and globalization have created a platform for bottom-up innovation. Although the jury is still out on whether bottom-up innovation can transform an organization, there is no doubt that fostering bottom-up innovation is a great accelerator to top-down innovation initiatives.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A CIO or a pair of revolutionaries? Take your pick.

I received this link from Business Week's Innovation and Design last week ( which leads to an article by Thomas D. Kuczmarski titled Obama Needs a Secretary of Innovation (February 19, 2009).

Coincidentally, I just got back from a business trip to Jacksonville, Florida and I had two books waiting for me at my office from The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, founder of Stratfor, and Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews.

I'm into page 107 of Jay Mathews' book which chronicles the experience of two young teachers - Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin - who've transformed the lives of hundreds of low-income, at-risk elementary school students. It's an extraordinary example of innovation from the bottom-up and although I'm just about one-third through the book, I can't resist juxtaposing the emerging elements of this success story against Kuczmarski's recommendation for a nation's equivalent to a Chief Innovation Officer. Kuczmarski's recommendation may be well intended but, to quote one of my past mentors, the road to hell is full of well intended people.

While I haven't completely discarded Kuczmarski's idea - for sure, it has some movement value - I think that the emerging Web 2.0 and 3.0 communication and collaboration tools may well be the catalist required to turn bottom-up innovations into system-wide transformation.

So, is it a CIO that we need, or more people in the walks of Feinberg and Levin?


The quintessential paradox

In a nutshell, here's the quintessential paradox. I've invested over 20 years of my life studying and researching the field of creativity and innovation field, with, at least, the last 15 designing and implementing innovation systems across all types of organizations. I've seen organization's adopt innovation best practices and I've seen their innovation output increase significantly, many times representing the key to their continued competitiveness and outright survival. I have enough empirical evidence to conclude that organizational design - in the broadest sense: strategy, structure, processes, capabilities, metrics, etc. - as an independent variable, will determine an organization's innovative output.

Having said that, I can't count the times where I've witnessed innovation occurring within the confines of an organization, not because of management but, despite of management! People, often in sheer acts of disobedience, ignoring or mocking bureaucratic barriers and driving innovation with a vengeance.

So, does innovation happen because of management or despite of management? There's evidence of both. However, since I've dedicated most of my research, work, and publications to the former, I'll use this blog for the latter. It occurs to me that I can use this blog to inventory cases of bottom-up innovation and, hopefully, get people to share their experience as well. I don't know, perhaps a theory of what it takes to innovate from the bottom-up may emerge. For the time being, it'll be an interesting experiment.