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

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.