Innovation is the lifeblood of any organization but too often it stalls because leaders see change as too disruptive or they’re not fully aware of why the front line is advocating change. Change your way of looking at change if you want a more innovative organization.
That is a constant query when corporations, governments, non-profits – indeed all organizations – seek to innovate. Are creative new ideas imposed from on high or do they evolve from front-line staffers?
Our research for Design Thinking for the Greater Good, and past research into effective corporate innovation, indicates “all of the above” is the best answer. Our stories demonstrate that it is not an either-or proposition. Instead, leaders encourage creative thinking with top-down systems which facilitate front-line innovation. Successful, effective ideas require management which protects employees from failure fallout and need employees willing to stick their necks out.
Beginning with The Catalyst, the first innovation work by Darden Business School’s strategy professor Dr. Jeanne Liedtka, one prime key we’ve discovered is managers who “run cover” for innovators by keeping any organization’s designated doubters at bay while innovators explore, empathize, ideate, experiment and iterate. Perhaps surprisingly it is rarely upper management who stall potential innovation, more often it is mid-levels and peers who can’t find the time to study an innovative possibility. They often “back burner” change makers to distraction.
Hence, a management style providing the time and minimal resources necessary to get through the experimentation stage where some predictive data can be developed is a godsend for creative front-liners.
Too often, it seems, upper management seeks innovation but leaves a command and control structure in place which discourages innovative employees from trying new methods of problem solving. To their employees, top-down C-suite dictums then become flavors of the month to be waited out because the next flavor is seemingly days away.
“Change is painful when done to you,” as one innovator told us, “but powerful when done by you.”
How to get top down-bottom up balance is, therefore, another main question. Our design thinking work provides management suggestions – and helps lower level employees navigate their bureaucracies – but, here, let’s consider the only “failed” project of our 10 Design Thinking for the Greater Good stories.
Innovators at United Cerebral Palsy had, perhaps, the most creative idea we discovered for suggesting, and planning, a method of maximizing unique capacities. Recognizing that across the decades UCP had expanded into addressing over 30 diseases, UCP’s innovators focused on individuals who developed products to help their personal family sufferers at UCP’s 80 independent chapters. Teaching design thinking to those garage visionaries who, for example, improved a wheelchair brake – and working to act like an idea distribution system to others who might need similar products — the concept was to connect what was too minor a product category for major manufacturers with other sufferers (and therefore potential users) across those 30 worldwide diseases.
After successful design thinking boot camps, UCP innovators were on the verge of generating an incubator to help garage entrepreneurs navigate funding and production issues when a falling out between some chapters and organizational management buffeted the huge charity.
On the verge of nudging UCP from a fund-raising institution which asked for help towards one which offered it through old-fashioned economies of scale, the change in upper management stalled organization-wide innovation.
The “top” didn’t quite know what the “bottom” was doing – or why – and a potential organizational game-changer evaporated from the reality that each self-governing chapter had different funding capabilities and needs.
Change, and innovation, is never easy. Timing is always an issue. The outside world never stands still. But all these, and other barriers, are inevitably minimized when innovative styles are celebrated – and practiced – by both organizational management and front-line staff.
Top down and bottom up is the way to get there from here.
Jeanne Liedtka is a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Her books include Solving Problems with Design Thinking, Designing for Growth, and The Designing for Growth Field Book.
Randy Salzman is a journalist and former communications professor at the University of Virginia. His work has been published in over 100 magazines, journals, and newspapers, from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to Mother Jones, Bicycling, and Style.
Daisy Azer is an entrepreneur, principal at Waterbrand Consulting Inc., and adjunct lecturer of design thinking at the Darden Graduate School of Business. Her career spans roles in business development and training and development in the financial industry, education, and technology.
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