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

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.

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