Conscripting Innovation

 

By, Gur Braslavi and Stephen Fox

We often associate great intellectual breakthroughs with a single eureka moment of a single inventor, such as Newton’s apple. The reality, though, is that innovation is the moment when many smaller ideas are pulled together to deliver a unified solution to a specific problem. Those who are skilled enough to accomplish this alone come around once in a lifetime. What about the manager who needs to innovate within his own company? There must be a better solution than waiting to hire the next Albert Einstein to the R&D department. Rather, managers must learn to harness the existing powers of their organizations in order to find solutions faster and more reliably. The answer is conscripting innovation.

What exactly does it mean to conscript innovation? The word “conscript” is typically a military term, meaning to be drafted or compelled into service. So to conscript innovation means to be drawn to be innovative, drafted into being creative.

The challenge is not for us to provide the solutions to our own problems, but rather to conscript a wide spectrum of talents together in order to innovate. Introducing new lines of thought and skills into the solution process allows us to break free from the internalized boundaries we have set for ourselves and find solutions that may otherwise have been overlooked. The problem is how to entice others to join you on your quest for the next great idea that will change your business, or maybe even your entire industry.

Conscripting innovation is a three-part process that will allow you to create an ideal environment to accomplish your goals, including focusing on a specific problem, fostering an environment for success, and making a problem fun to work on.

Part 1: The first step towards conscripting innovation requires managers to have their employees focus on a single objective and direct certain people to solve a single problem. Managers must take complicated ideas and strip them down into a simpler goal that others will be easily understood. With new perspective come new solutions. Take a look at the aircraft company, Boeing, during the early 1990s; individual departments within the company lacked coordination with each other, which lead to a lot of wasted time, resources, and money. Rather than implement changes from the top down, management decided to tackle this problem by opening the lines of communication between the departments and developing “accelerated improvement retreats” for the top employees in each group. When working together, they found that many of their processes overlapped, allowing the company to cut down significantly on the overall manufacturing costs.[1] The solutions did not come from around the boardroom table, but rather used the perspective of engineers, assembly workers, warehouse managers and pilots to find innovative solutions to the company’s process of manufacturing planes.

Part 2: The second step in conscripting innovation is to foster a creative, yet productive work environment. In general, this must be done through a long process of creating a supportive company culture. While creating “thinking spaces” with bean bag chairs and foosball tables can help, the way innovative ideas are treated by upper level management is what will decide whether or not employees are willing to put their necks out on the line. The way to achieve it is to develop a culture of innovation that does not punish employees for taking calculated risks, even if they fail. HP Software has implemented an impressive program called the “innovation stream” in order to overcome this problem. The stream flows throughout the organization, asking for input from all departments and levels, similar to the way Boeing had done; however, the difference is in the encouragement that HP gives their employees. They can receive points for submitting ideas, critiquing the ideas of others, and lending their expertise to design teams for the best ideas. These points can be used to purchase days off and other benefits. More importantly though, employees who are serious about working on their innovations are given time each week to work in development teams. HP has found that when employees are allowed to take the lead on their own ideas, it allows the large company to develop the entrepreneurial spirit that used to be reserved for smaller, start-up companies. This culture of innovation gives employees the courage to put forth their ideas and the support to turn them into products that will help HP continue to grow.[2]

Part 3: The third step of conscripting innovation says that the assignments employees are working on must be fun and enjoyable. Studies have found that people are far more willing to expend their time, energy and resources on tasks that they enjoy. An example of this can be seen in the discovery of supernova, where each year more professional and amateur astronomers search larger portions of the sky for these rare phenomena. The result has been an exponential increase in the discovery rate of supernova and many more associated breakthroughs in the astronomy community.[3]

In finding an innovative solution to your own problem, the dilemma becomes how to conscript others to work together. This requires focus on the question at hand, a culture that promotes innovation, and most of all, a fun and enticing process that attracts others to actually want to invest their time. You are not trying to bring the solution to others, nor are you assuming to know what the solution may be, nor are you saying there is even a viable solution. What you can do is bring together the collective knowledge necessary to find an innovative solution. So what is the focus of your company: on finding the solution to your problems or learning how to conscript others to innovate with you?

 

[1] “Can Boeing Fly High Again?” Http://www.maths.tcd.ie/~nora/FT351-3/CS.pdf. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
[2] Gvirtsman, Ahi. “HP Innovation Stream.” Tel Aviv, Israel. 13 Nov. 2012. Lecture.
[3] http://www.universetoday.com/26495/a-supernova-story/

 

 

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