Attending the Intrapreneurship Conference in Toronto a few weeks back reinforced some of my beliefs around how organizations can improve the way they “do” innovation. As we know, intrapreneurs are integral to innovation, and so the following three themes about how organizations can better engage in innovation were repeated throughout the conference and were often the focus of after-hours conversations between delegates.

Avoid Delegating Innovation

I first used this theme of “innovation delegation” in a speech I gave in 2014. In fact, I said, “Leaders, you can’t delegate innovation”. I had this insight as a result of research I’d been conducting into how to help organizations improve innovation outcomes.

Fast forward to 2017, and what I heard at the Intrapreneurship Conference is that leaders continue to delegate innovation, believing that if they wish hard enough for innovation, it will happen. Perhaps a better word for it is “relegation” rather than “delegation,” as innovation often gets relegated to the side of the desk to deal with another day.

Rather, leaders must be actively engaged in making innovation happen. Engaged leaders create engaged people. You want to fix your engagement issue? You need to lead innovation. Don’t talk about it or hope that it will happen. It won’t.  You gotta walk the talk to make it happen.

Don’t Be Tempted by “Innovation Theatre”

You’ve seen staged “innovation events,” I’m sure. You might have been invited to one of these events or participated in one; you may even have led them.

I’m talking about events styled after Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank, or using suggestion boxes and idea tracking software to gather ideas that aren’t tied to a specific problem. Innovation theatre also encompasses innovation labs that have no clear function in the organization, and—I’m going out on a limb here—highly promoted training events that promise to teach something about innovation where there’s no accountability, support, or understanding about how to actually use it in the organization.

All these events might give people an experience around innovation, but they do nothing to change behaviours or innovation outcomes. In fact, they’re more likely to disengage and disenfranchise the people invited.

These events were not so nicely referred to as “Innovation Theatre” by many speakers at the conference. You see, when an organization’s focus on innovation is all about the show and not about the act, that’s not engaging in innovation—that’s pretending to be innovative.

The consensus? Stop it! Right now.

Cancel the production.

Real innovation is not about staging events. It’s about changing how you think, how you behave, how you work and what you do. And it takes dedication and time to do it.

Emphasize Process Over Ideation

A concern that organizations are emphasizing ideation too much was raised frequently throughout the conference. Often heard was the opinion that ideation is not an event, and it was never meant to be a track and field day.

This criticism is rooted in the fact that many organizations see ideation as a way to enhance employee engagement, to find opportunities for continuous improvement, and as a way to show that they’re supporting a culture of innovation. So, they stage ideation days or programs where everyone is asked to contribute ideas. The ideas get captured on post-its or logged into ideation software and no one really knows what happens to them.

While ideation gets people involved in the short term, it doesn’t really produce results in the long term, and it certainly doesn’t help with engagement. More likely it creates disengagement as employees never see the results of their ideas.

I could write a book about why overemphasizing ideation as part of your innovation strategy is so wrong. Instead, I’ll highlight three common mistakes organizations make when their emphasis for innovation is on ideation:

  1. People think of ideation as innovation. For ideation to be successful, we need two things: a front-end effort that defines the problem for which we need ideas, and a back-end effort that develops and works to implement the ideas.

At BridgePoint Effect, we teach our clients a four-step thinking process for innovation called the FourSight Thinking System™– first you clarify the challenge you’re tackling, THEN you generate ideas to address it. Third, you select the most promising ideas to develop into a workable solution. Finally, you plan how you’ll implement the solution and work to continuously monitor and adjust this effort. In a nutshell – ideas need context and ideas are only one part of the innovation process. It’s not all about ideation.

  1. They ask people for ideas without having a discipline or rules around generating the ideas, which discourages participation and hurts idea production.

There is a proper way to engage in ideation (or brainstorming ideas). Brainstorming and its rules for engagement were invented by Alex Osborn of BBDO over sixty years ago. Since then, the effectiveness of brainstorming has been  well researched; it’s proven, and using it makes a difference. When you do it right,  brainstorming includes divergent thinking, with explicit guidelines for use so you create the psychological safety people need to productively engage in the process. If you are leading ideation sessions and you’re not explicitly using divergent thinking and these guidelines, you aren’t getting what you need—novel ideas—and you will eventually turn your people off from participating.  Not familiar with these guidelines? Email hello@bridgepointeffect.com and we’ll send them to you.

  1. There is no clear path from ideation to results. When we ask people to give us their best thinking, we’d better be clear on how we’re using it. If we aren’t, our hopes for engagement become a clear path to disengagement. It’s disrespectful to ask people for ideas without letting them know how and when you’ll use their ideas and to report back on the progress of their development.

The alternative to relying mostly on ideation for innovation is to understand that innovation needs structure, process, and tools that support you in searching out and framing the right challenges to focus on and a clear path towards how you will develop ideas and get them implemented. Each of the steps in the innovation process offer opportunities to engage employees and stakeholders in productive ways.

In summary, to produce innovation in an organization you need to avoid delegating innovation or relegating it to the side of your desk. You need to cancel the “innovation theatre” events and stop over-emphasizing ideation over results. Instead, start thinking about the ways you can internalize innovation in your organization through:

  • leadership
  • a practice that integrates and aligns innovation to corporate strategy
  • a consistent way to define, measure and teach innovation so that the topic of innovation and its performance goals are not ambiguous or implied
  • structure, process and tools.

Here’s how BridgePoint Effect can help your organization “do innovation” better.

Our Let’s Talk Innovation and Risking and Learning from Failure in Innovation workshops are suitable for organizations who are exploring how they will more formally realize innovation in their organization and who are looking to engage in team building.

Our Creativity Boost and Your Innovative Team programs help individuals understand how their preferences for engaging in complex problem solving contribute to innovation results, and introduces a language and process for innovation based on the FourSight Thinking System™.

The Creativity in Business,   Leadership Metaphor Explorer and Breakthrough Thinking for Leaders workshops are excellent for leaders who wish to better understand themselves as leaders in an innovative organization and their role in leading innovation.

The ThinkUP Innovation Framework™—exclusive to BridgePoint Effect—provides the structure your organization needs to integrate and align innovation to your corporate strategy, the tools to define and measure innovation impact in your organization, and the training to provide your teams with the skills and tools they need to drive innovation results.

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