Distributing Innovation Work Effectively

Submitted by Jeffrey Phillips on July 15, 2011 – 11:43 pmOne Comment

by Jeffrey Phillips

We read, quite consistently, that innovation should be “everyone’s” job. That’s a simple encomium that is at least partially true. However, we also know that innovation is difficult, exacting work that requires new insights and new skills. How can “everyone” do innovation when barely anyone gets any training?

So, what is the appropriate distribution of the work involved in innovating? Should “everyone” participate, and by that do we mean literally everyone – customers, partners and employees, or are we only talking about internal employees when we say “everyone”? Or, if innovation is as important as we suggest that it is, shouldn’t we have experts doing innovation work? Shouldn’t our best people focus on innovation?

I think in many firms innovation is the triumph of hope over experience. Innovation is fraught with risk, so few people are willing to dig deeply into what makes innovation work. Further, because everyone is so busy, it can be hard to find time to innovate, so while many are called, few actually choose to participate. In my experience, and in the experience of other innovation consultants, it’s not rare to discover that of those invited to submit ideas, only 10% of those invited submit ideas, and of the ideas submitted, about 2 or 3% of the participants are responsible for most of the ideas. A relatively small population of any “crowd” submits the lion’s share of the ideas, and that’s the involvement in the simplest activity.

When it comes to managing, evaluating and selecting ideas, that work can be difficult if not impossible without a defined set of processes, a transparent evaluation template and a reasonable amount of training. Otherwise evaluation is simply opinion. There’s real work to be done to manage and select ideas. The hangers-on who submitted ideas now often fall away, leaving only the truly committed to see ideas through to the end.

Or perhaps when we say “Everyone” should be involved in innovation we mean that different people can play different roles, even if they don’t participate in the entire innovation process. For example, some people may be good at spotting trends, and that’s their contribution. Others are good at generating ideas, and that’s what they do. Others are willing to take on a larger role with more responsibility, so they work on the evaluation and selection of ideas. This role based approach can work if you can find the people who have strengths in the different requirements each phase of innovation presents. This approach requires less from each individual and allows each to play to their strength, but suffers from a lack of continuity and consistency.

An innovation team formed to solve a problem moves through each of these phases, but the skills and capabilities of the team aren’t uniform. While some may enjoy trend spotting, many may feel the time is wasted and want to proceed immediately to generating ideas. Others may feel idea generation is not valuable and want to simply flesh out a couple of ideas in great depth. While the team approach offers consistency and continuity, there are often conflicts as to the importance of the work in each phase.

Further clouding the issue, innovation work is often thrust upon people who are overworked. Innovation becomes more more requirement that they must complete. Many of these people aren’t “bought in” to an innovation vision and are frustrated that their regular work is diminished by the new innovation requirement. Both innovation and their regular work suffer. The question arises – should the people who work on innovation initiatives be part-time or full-time? The easy answer is full-time, with requisite compensation and rewards. That way regular work doesn’t send a siren call to return to the day to day grind, and the team has a singular focus to create a new product or service. However, asking people to step outside their regular jobs for a significant period of time may take them off the “fast track” for advancement in their functional role. A strong marketer may find advancement and promotion simpler by sticking to that core work, rather than taking on a long, risky and uncertain innovation initiative.

The final answer is that there is no definitively correct distribution of innovation work, except with these caveats:

Wherever and whenever possible, assign people to the team who are passionate about change and about innovation. In fact, seek volunteers.
Wherever possible, assign people to a team and free them up from their regular job, and describe how they’ll return to the job or a better one at the end of the innovation effort.
Understand the broad set of skills necessary and when they are necessary. Trend spotters are needed early, ideators in the middle, idea managers and evaluators late
The individual who leads the innovation initiative must be a strong motivator, well connected and open to radical change. He or she will “make or break” the rest of the team, so choose your leader carefully
Let’s face it: everyone may want the “ability” to participate in an innovation initiative, but many won’t, and that’s OK. It’s better to have a few truly committed and passionate about the idea, while leaving the opportunity open for “everyone”. What’s just as important is freeing the right people up to do the work without distractions, and giving them the tools and training they need to be successful.

Finally, decide whether you want an innovation project, or an innovation capability. A project is a one-time, discrete event. Your people or your innovation team can gear up, work the opportunity and disband. Training is less important and your methods are less important, since the work won’t be repeated. It will be even more important in a discrete project to place your best people and best leadership on that project, since the team will invent most of its methods. If, on the other hand, you want a more consistent flow of ideas and see innovation as a long term capability, training and process development should take precedence.


About hbouzas

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Studied Physics at the University of Buenos Aires. Joined Schlumberger in February 1985 in Houston, Texas, and worked in several technical and managerial positions until 2000. From 2000 until 2008 held several management positions in Abingdon, UK; Calgary, Alberta and London, UK. Worked in the areas of Geophysical Exploration, Geological Modeling, Structural Modeling, Reservoir Modeling and Petroleum Economics and holds several patents. He is currently the Norway Technology Center Manager for Schlumberger Information Solutions and is based in Oslo and Stavanger. Main interest are software, technology, innovation, 3D visualization, design, human computer interaction, energy, environment.
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