Can innovation be streamlined?

In a workforce that’s evolving on a daily basis, the notion of innovation has been romanticised. We still think of it as some kind of grand reaction, the offspring of a light bulb moment that redefines the way whole industries operate.

Most of the time, that’s not the case. Most of the time, it is not rapid advances, but small shifts that form bigger movements within organisations that create constant and positive change.

Such change comes about through the sharing of ideas by all employees of a business, fair and considered response by peers, and eventual implementation by management.

It’s a process, and one that according to new research, can be streamlined and optimised as efficiently as any other element of a successful company’s operations.

Over the last five years, Kellogg School of Management assistant professor Dylan Minor has been using idea management software Spigit to track and analyse the innovation process of 3.5 million workers from 154 public companies.

Spigit is designed like a simple social media platform: workers can post their ideas, which colleagues can then react to through ‘likes’ or by posting feedback. The goal is to ensure great ideas don’t get lost while their creators wait to pitch it at the next general meeting, and that employees from all levels of an organisation can have their say in an open forum after taking time to consider them.

Not so surprisingly, Minor and his fellow analysts – Spigit COO Paul Brook and business writer Josh Bernoff – discovered that the ideation rate (number of ideas implemented divided by active user figures on the platform) was directly proportional to the growth of each company.

Simply put, there’s a science to this kind of innovation, and the statistics show that four key criteria ultimately define how successful it is:

1) Scale. On average, companies generated one idea per four users on the Spigit platform. In smaller organisations, that might make the process sounds pointless, but don’t give in. All this figure serves as is a reminder that the best and most practical ideas don’t always come from the top. Ensuring everyone in the organisation has their opportunity to weigh in is what matters most.

2) Frequency. Companies judged one idea in five worth implementing. That means employees must be incited to be continually pitching ideas, even in the face of continued rejection. How can we ensure that happens? Challenge them, suggest the researchers. Ask them to pitch ideas based on particular needs or even hypothetical questions that will get them thinking abstractedly in order to breed an innovative culture.

3) Engagement. An extension of the two above, engagement isn’t just about posting ideas, but offering feedback and driving conversation. It’s not enough to have people posting ideas if their peers are not engaged to the point where they’re willing to offer advice, or even suggest why the idea might not work. A sense of consistency is vital within a company, and innovation without a sense of purpose is just change. If employees don’t value that change, than it tends to do more harm than good.

4) Diversity. Simply because someone doesn’t work in a field at which particularly innovations are targeted doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to add to the discussion. By opening up ideas to different perspectives, we invite the kind of scrutiny that ensures viability in its implementation.

The researchers offer an example of this from an industrial manufacturing plant that was looking for a way to cut down the inspection process time for a particular aircraft part.

It was an administrative assistant who suggested the solution by mentioning a piece of technology she’d seen in the sci-fi film Minority Report. While many laughed at her comment, the CTO did not, and as a result, inspection time has been cut by 85%.

Being 8 Percent isn’t about being ‘the best’. It’s about being able to recognise what it takes to be the best. Today, that means utilising a range of perspectives to critique and refine the kinds of innovations that will ensure our businesses last long into the future. If we take the time to establish a process so that innovation is a constant within our organisations, that’s when we’ll truly start seeing results.

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