Innovation At Grassroots In Large Organisations

One of the toughest activity that I have been into, in recent times can be described as “channelising innovation at grassroots” in my organisation. Let me also clarify that the difficulty is NOT on account of an absence of innovation, but on my ability to channelise.

As part of the CTO office, and responsible for running “innovation program” (an oxymoron) across my organisation and another large organisation we had acquired in 2009, mobilising my associates around innovations of business relevance is my task. We are talking about a total employee base of about 80000 and that should give you an idea of the dimensions of the “grassroots”.

The Oxymoron

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Innovation is about something new and a program is one that follows a defined known path. Innovation is as undefinable as art while a program is as predictable as maths.

So, the initial challenge was that of how to get repeatable results that are new every time!

The Factory

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Our organisation, like every other that is good in this business, prides in the maturity of our delivery process. The maturity comes from two factors – a prioritisation of customer and a strict discipline within a line function aligned towards business objectives.

The discipline is important for us to run our business profitably / efficiently. When an associate wants to spend time on innovation, owing to the experimental nature of innovation, it flies straight into this discipline.

A central innovation coordinating team, such as mine, would appear immature in contrast (it is by design too). This in turn leads to mistrust from line function and even ridicule, by their leadership.

ROI on Awards
One can easily see that an inducement that can be offered – a hygiene, really – is to provide recognition to innovators. As a program designer, I would want something that goes beyond the ordinary as an inducement or awards process. That requires a decent budget beyond what it takes us to operate the program.

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Of course, it is a duty towards their shareholders, for a professional management to manage cost and to control budget demands by demanding justifications. However, of all the business cases I have made in my life – and I have made quite a few over the years – the most abstract and hypothetical one was justifying the large amount that I wanted a budget.

Despite an innovation friendly Executive Team that would not grudge a decent budget, it is the checks and balances to ensure fair use of the budget that is toughest to crack. This gets tougher when we have to convince a customer to co-invest in our innovation!

Fitness To Purpose
An organisation exists to make profit and to do that they ought to stick to their core business and closely aligned areas, at best.

So, every innovative idea – a proud product of an enthusiastic mind – has to be checked for fitness to purpose of business. Business has its own reasoning – could be a past experience, competition dynamics or other market dynamics – for defining fitness to purpose of even the well-meaning innovative ideas.

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However, the problem is not rejection by business – it is about rejection of an idea, that sounds logically sound, from an enthusiastic person. How to ensure massive grassroots participation when for seemingly unknown reasons business rejects ideas?

Prior Art
The last factor – but one that is significant – is that of what is called prior-art in the patenting process. Sometimes, innovators come up with ideas that would lead to success – however there may have been some other part of the organisation that had already implemented the idea based on an external advise (customer, partner etc.). The prior use was either not explicitly documented or was not shared.

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Does this innovation merit recognition? If the innovators idea, despite delivering the goods, is rejected, what message does it provide about the innovation process?

In Conclusion
Without going into the details, I can say that after a struggle for 13 months and a few false turns, we seem to have a stable, if not the best, working process to engage the innovators at grassroots of the organisation today, addressing all the points above.

The corporate group to which my company belongs is known for a strong innovation orientation. Some of our “programs” have aroused their interests for a potential corporate wide consideration – that is a testimonial to our progress.

And, we are improving by the day…

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