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, January 13, 2010

The Conflicting Demands of Exploitation and Exploration

I recently finished reading Roger Martin’s latest book, The Design of Business (Harvard Business Press, 2009). Well, he also coauthored, with Mihnea Moldoveanu, Diaminds; Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, which I have on my desk, and I just noticed its copyright reads 2010; so I guess it isn’t his latest book.

In any event, if you haven’t read Roger Martin, I would highly recommend you do so. The Opposable Mind (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) would be my suggested starting point. I find he’s up there with Russell Ackoff and Ian Mitroff; thought leaders that keep you at the edge of your seat with their ideas.

In The Design of Business, Martin uses the concepts of exploitation and exploration to differentiate two different cognitive and behavioral frameworks. Exploitation relates to “milking” the current state of knowledge. It includes honing and refining current formulations; however, its primary concern is obtaining results within the current knowledge stage.

Exploration, on the other hand, relates to discovering new knowledge. Exploration is concerned with moving from the current knowledge stage to the next. While exploitation begets mastery, exploration feeds on originality.

I’ve been recently using this conceptual framework to understand and explain various phenomena. For example, I’ve just authored an article on Lean Manufacturing that uses this framework to help explain why many Lean implementations fail; and I am currently helping a distributor in the food and beverage industry (with strong exploitation processes), strengthen its weak exploration capability.

So, how do the concepts of exploitation and exploration relate to bottom-up innovation? Because of their execution related responsibilities, most bottom-up innovators find it difficult to escape the shackles of their day-to-day exploitation-related tasks to find time and resources for exploration.

The bureaucratic answer to the exploitation-exploration dilemma is to assign departments to each endeavor. There are those whose job is to invent the future while there are those whose job is to get the product out the door or service the customer coming in. The problem with this approach is that it relegates innovation to a small group and delimits it to the development of new product or service offerings.

The bureaucratic answer helps neither you nor your organization. Innovation is critical for improvement to flourish in all organizational dimensions: not only products and services, but also processes and methods, and business models and strategy. Without exploration, innovation is impossible. Also, in an exploration depleted environment, personal and professional growth come to a standstill.

For those of you trapped in bureaucracies, making incursions into exploration may be difficult. Sometime a delicate mix of lots of ingenuity with a dash of disobedience is required to break the bureaucratic spell. Some of the most daring bottom-up innovators I’ve met manage to use every single opportunity to advance their innovation agenda. Some of their tactics include:

1. Opening their eyes and ears to what’s happening around them. Many new ideas originated by noticing inconveniences and obstacles or by just watching people behave in their “natural habitat.”
2. Reading at least 30 minutes a day. Many bottom-up innovators find reading encouraging, refreshing, and liberating. They read on a diversity of topics. It stimulates their mind and helps lubricate their exploration skills.
3. Making a point to learn from their colleagues. They use every opportunity to expand their field of vision.
4. Volunteering for projects. They seek exposure to other areas they would normally not be exposed to.

Do you have any tactics you’d like to share? Click on comment below and share your ideas.