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How to Innovate Innovation: Takeaways from the Quick MIX Brainstorm (part 2)

by Michele Zanini on December 17, 2012


michele-zanini_4's picture

How to Innovate Innovation: Takeaways from the Quick MIX Brainstorm (part 2)

Quick MIX Summary Part 2

We recently ran an on-line brainstorming session we call “Quick MIX” focused on a topic related to the current Innovating Innovation M-Prize challenge.  The question for the Quick MIX was: what is the one thing you’d change to make organizations more innovation-friendly?

Last week we ran the first installment with eight provocative recommendations distilled from Quick MIX contributions. We present another eight this week.

1. Accelerate and de-risk innovation process through rapid prototyping, experimentation, and simulation

As Gary Hamel noted in his Quick MIX contribution, “a company can’t explore a lot of new options if it costs millions of dollars (or even thousands) to test each one. To make innovation a capability, an organization must master the art of rapid prototyping. It must maximize the ratio of learning over investment to find the sweet spot of demand for a new product, or perfect a nascent business more rapidly and inexpensively than competitors.”  Rob Schade suggests using simulation as a way to run virtual experiments that change the context for employees and enable them to think differently.  Rob proposes running simulations in which some teams would be “fired” and pitted against their “old” company as competitors.

View all the Quick MIX ideas on prototyping, experimentation and simulation


2. Encourage “smart” failure

Succeeding at innovation often requires disciplined trial and error, and trial and error by definition implies a good share of dead ends and disproved hypotheses.  Problem is, most companies’ cultures and reward systems don’t differentiate between “smart” and not-so-smart failure—if you fail, you lose.  Mario Morales suggests de-risking innovation by giving everyone a “smart failures” quota.  This can be done by “providing 3 ‘permission to fail’ cards to each employee per year: if someone ‘fails’ by trying innovative things during the year, they can use the card as a safety net to avoid any punishment or negative consequences on their performance appraisal, bonuses, etc.”

Ismael Pulido de la Calle proposes that organizations should teach people to fail through new role models. There’s a lack of adequate models of failure, he says, as leaders “display their infallibility through impeccable resumes full of success only” and business schools “teach us the keys of management only through success stories, or cases of failures adequately sweetened and always with a happy ending.”

View all the Quick MIX ideas on encouraging smart failure


3. Improve the quality and quantity of innovative ideas

The emphasis that traditional management systems place on predictability and conformance makes it easy for people to dismiss or ignore colleagues with new, unorthodox ideas.  Several Quick MIX participants pointed out that to enable the flow of innovative ideas, the typical bias for the status quo must be squelched.

One of the most “liked” ideas on the Quick MIX was Chris Grams’ proposal on how to defeat a “tear things down” culture.  Chris proposes a practical new rule: “if someone doesn’t like an idea, rather than attack the idea itself, they must instead suggest a better one so that the organization is always building, not tearing down.”

Other Quick MIX contributions suggested that providing a safe, anonymous place to surface ideas is a useful step in spurring new and better thinking.  For instance, Jim Smith notes that “employees will not risk their careers to help innovate, as their perception of risk from management gets in the way.  To counter human nature, ask employees to tell you anonymously the truly stupid things the company is doing.” 

Finally, As Dan Bean argues in his Quick MIX submission, another key ingredient to ensuring a steady flow of good ideas is giving everyone who has a stake—whether they’re inside or outside the company—a voice in the innovation discussion.

View all the Quick MIX ideas on quality and quantity of ideas


4. Build a foundation of widely shared innovation insights accessible by all

With his Quick MIX contribution, Moises Norena's sets this theme up very well: "organizations get fooled when information is protected, unavailable, not democratized...the value creation in innovation happens when information is converted into insights, making information (consumer, market, competitive, financial) available to everyone within the walls of an organization."

Gerhard Goldbeck suggests that open data and open access are creating new opportunities to quickly build rich, and easily shareable, foundations of insights.  To take advantage of these, companies need to foster an open information culture.  Marcelo Michelsohn proposes that a common insight base be built on the basis of failures in addition to successes.  He proposes a “make mistakes we can learn from” competition for the person, department, or project team that can generate more learning from mistakes they make. Learnings would be shared, starting with the senior leaders of the company, and members of the organization would be able to comment and vote to choose the best ones.

A couple of Quick MIX contributions suggested whiteboards as tools to build insights and share them freely.  For instance, Todd Noebel proposes having electronic whiteboards throughout the office or facility, where any individual can post an idea or concept which would appear on other whiteboards for people to add their input. “Capture these centrally and encourage teams around the ideas to build out the concepts,” he says. “Primary rule—no negative comments. But do allow for, ‘if not X, than Y’ alternatives with an underlying theme of ‘How do we make this true/come into being?’” 

View all the Quick MIX ideas on building a foundation of insights


5. Leverage new social technologies to bring the best ideas to the fore

By their very nature, social media interactions are two-way and less hierarchical than other types of communication, which makes them more suitable for constructive contribution.  Social technologies have also embedded in them principles like openness, serendipity, and autonomy—all of which are far more conducive to innovation than compartmentalization, predictability, and top-down control.  Aaron Anderson advocates using a cloud-based wiki that gets everyone on the same page at the same time, with the big win being shortened in-person meetings and having an archive that acts as institutional memory and helps solve problems that had been handled previously.

Anderson Nielson proposes more of an “old social technology”: a draft beer keg next to the coffee machine at work.  “We do need trust at work. Why not put a draft beer keg adjacent to the espresso coffee machine? Why not really act as you really believe in ‘freedom and responsibility’ in your workplace?” he demands. People can drink beer to socialize and share new ideas, as they can drink coffee at work to “increase productivity” at work, goes the thinking. “Why not, to being as happy at work as we are in a pub?”

View all the Quick MIX ideas on leveraging new social technologies


6. Grow “communities of passion” around new and promising ideas

Organizations often pursue innovation through formal “task forces” or other types of collaboration that is hardwired into the hierarchy of the organization.  These are often unsuccessful since one’s formal role isn’t necessarily the best way to identify people with the right expertise or perspective to work on specific innovation opportunities.  They by definition draft people who “ought” to participate given their role, as opposed to finding people who, given their passions, would gladly get involved.

To bring out passionate involvement, Peter Frings suggests an Innovation Hack where the whole company votes the winner.  On an announced Hack Day, teams (who are encouraged to be cross-departmental and are given time to prepare their pitch) present their idea, which is seen and voted on by everyone in the company. “Lots of kudos to the winners...which is then amplified because the winning idea has to be backed and funded by the Board. This approach sends the message that anyone can innovate and that innovation is ‘bottom up,’” Frings says.

View all the Quick MIX ideas on growing communities of passion


7. Involve customers deeply in the innovation process

To truly innovate, companies need to step back from the typical “organization-forward” lens to innovation (e.g., how can we leverage our capabilities/skills to innovate?) and take a “customer-backward” approach (i.e., what are the customer needs that are unarticulated and/or unmet by anybody else in our industry?).  John Macdonald suggests “sheep dipping,” meaning inviting people (in this case, the customer’s customers) to think imaginatively. “Ask the customer’s customers to describe the best possible day they could have in terms of being successful and achieving their goals. Obtain a summary statement that holistically captures this. Then in 30-minute segments get them to describe how the day unfolds. Then share this with a team consisting of all parties in the value stream that exists to create this ‘perfect day.’” The trick is to let them think what it is like for the customer’s customer, he explains.

View all the Quick MIX ideas on involving customers in the innovation process


8. Ensure innovation efforts take full advantage of the organization’s diversity

Diversity isn’t programmed in the DNA of traditional management practices—in fact quite the opposite is true—the more standardized, the better.  Shilpa Ranganathan points to the lack of diversity in the workplace, especially technology fields. As Ranganathan argues, however: “Diversity is key for creative thinking. It provides the variety of perspectives and experiences that spark creativity, problem solving and innovation to propel organizations forward. Blending different expertise yields innovation.”

View all the Quick MIX ideas on ensuring innovation efforts take advantage of diversity


We thank all the participants of the Quick MIX for their amazing insights and participation in this inaugural brainstorm.  Please consider building on your ideas as part of the Innovating Innovation challenge, and stay tuned for future Quick MIXes!

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jari-torvelainen's picture

Nice summary of good and sometimes very hard to implement ideas. Some of them might be even difficult to understand without first hand experience.

I have personally been very much involved, even in charge of designing and implementing two ( but only 2 ! ) such "exercises", where practically all these 8 ideas have been ( re-)invented and implemented to very large extent.

The results were over expectations indeed but in post analysis couple of years later these processes managed to "jump start" a turnaround from existing situation to business innovation(s).

How to keep up business innovation is yet another challenge and should be organized differently, based on the intended target level of innovation vs. nurturing.

michele-zanini_4's picture

Hi Jari, thanks for your comment-totally agree with your point that innovation can only become a systemic capability only if the "system" allows it to happen on an ongoing basis, versus through episodic fits and starts.

I'm also quite interested in learning more about your experience in the successful exercises to jump start innovation--perhaps you could share your stories as part of the M-Prize challenge?

thanks again


jari-torvelainen's picture

Hi Michele,

To elaborate a bit on your first comment:
- imho: "systems" that allow ( not to speak about encouraging or depending on ) business innovation are very very rare indeed.
- "business innovation" as an on-going strategy is much more challenging and risky than most alternatives, such as using normal "big business resources" ( money and financing included ) to buy into businesses that fit the "portfolio" criteria the corporation has.
- because of the business and personal risks involved ( and very often the personal career risk for any person who decides to pursue business innovation instead of more conservative exploitation alternatives weighs much more in the equations ) the business innovation strategy is mostly chosen either in situation where one or very few controlling share holder(s) choose to do so or the company has no practical alternative. Perhaps prime examples of these choices are represented by Apple ( when Steve Jobs regained control of the company ) and Nokia in early 1990's ( when they had very few real alternatives ).

About writing it down in challenge:
- as a McK alumni member: why not ( started already on the smaller case but ran out of time ... )
- as an entrepreneur with current interest in couple of new startups etc: how do I justify using time for this instead of commitments to the colleagues and people in there ( plus family in Xmas time )?