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Bottom-Up Innovation

By Rob Hawse

Is your organization set-up for innovation? If yes, you are one of the select few. If not, making innovation a strategic initiative should be on your priority list for 2016. Specifically, “bottom-up innovation.”

Traditionally, organizations within the manufacturing and B2B spaces tend to be “top-down.” Meaning that initiatives are corporate wide and derived from C-level individuals. A solution has arrived that needs to be implemented instead of creating a notion of what could be or “what if…” and seeing if it sticks through exploration and iteration. Large sums of time and money can go to waste on 2 or 3 big solutions derived from top management. How about filtering 20, 30 or 40 ideas spread across multiple groups and hundreds of individuals? Innovation is a new idea, not a solution.

“Bottom up” innovation is about ideation from all levels of an organization and specifically from the individual, in particular from the lower levels such employees, engineers, developers, interns, and more importantly…customers. It requires a cultural shift from within. Taking an insight to a fleshed out idea is normally a group outcome, it takes several layers of an organization to see an insight turn into a formal idea because today’s marketplace is complex, dynamic, and constantly shifting. Only companies that have organized a system to allow innovation to flourish will survive in an ever-changing market landscape.

So, how can a company go about considering and integrating a bottom-up system?

Here are a few key starting points that are integral to creating this powerful cultural shift:

Establish an incubator for insights and ideas to come to life.

Companies can tap into innovation by creating organized ecosystems to garner insights and big ideas. You can even give it a name or have an open call invitation for ideas. But most importantly, it must not follow typical corporate structures. People who have unique insights and big ideas need to be able to share and express them outside a traditional hierarchical environment. Certain procedures should be established, but the playing field must be level and egos should be checked at the door, so sharing, collaboration, inquiry, and discovery take front and center. Democracy rules here.

Set the precedence that failure is OK. Punishment for failure is not OK.

Risk and failure go hand in hand. Mitigating the risk is key. Having a large pool consisting of individuals and small groups producing dozens of iterative ideas is much cheaper than having top brass create one or two top-down initiatives that undoubtedly require more money and resources to produce. Instead of having one or two big ideas on the table and throw cash and manpower at them, start with 20 ideas that have potential but need nurturing. It’s cheaper, and you run the chance of having more than one or two viable ideas ready to take off.

Encouraging new ideas and setting up an environment to procure them is only one part of innovation. We often learn from our mistakes and failures, maybe even more so than our successes. If something does not work, evaluate, look at the details, understand the pitfalls and why certain decisions were made and why they did not work. Failure isn’t an end, rather an opportunity to continue in a different direction.

Use data and customer insights to back ideas.

Who better to gather insights on your strength and weaknesses than your customers? Do the research to find out what they are saying. Gather the data, analyze it, and openly share the findings with everyone involved, good and bad. Tap into the people on the front lines of customer interactions, dive deep into their observations and experiences. Better yet, ask the customer directly. If your company is not trying to unearth this information, it will make innovation almost impossible.

Mix bottom-up ideation with top-down resources.

The people and groups ideating at the lower levels have more power to create more ideas faster, the iteration process is much more fluid. The people operating at the top have the better resources to filter the ideas through experience and insights/data and ensure the customer remains at the heart of anything new. Establishing a fruitful connection between the two is key. By having a bottom-up framework for innovation, a fair system is established to evaluate new processes and ideas to a bottom line. Whether that be customer centric or revenue based.

In a business sector such as manufacturing, innovation always has and always will play an integral role in shaping the future of economies. But all to often the sector is slow in bringing new processes to their internal worlds. With some careful consideration and planning, buy-in from all levels of the organization, and a desire to propel through innovation the payoff of establishing and nurturing a cultural mindset geared for new ideas is boundless.

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