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

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.

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