It has been 10 years since the publication of our book “8-steps to innovation”. During this time, we got the opportunity to share the framework with various leaders. We also saw the framework being put into practice. Through this series of reflections, I will try to shine a light on situations where the framework might be weak. In this article, I will question the third step – building participation.
The 8-step framework suggests that if you want to build an idea pipeline, create a challenge book first (step 2) and then involve people in participative problem-solving (step 3). For example, if you have a brainstorming session around a specific challenge, you end up generating several ideas. Here are situations where this may not work.
Inventor’s challenge: I have met several inventors who prefer to keep their ideas to themselves. They have no interest in sharing it with their boss or colleagues because they feel they may steal their ideas. Perhaps they have had a bad experience in the past where others took credit for their idea. In my workshops, when we have brainstorms, these people suggest some ideas. And then meet me during the break or send a message to share their pet idea which they are not comfortable sharing with others. I understand the importance of secrecy until you have some form of protection. However, sometimes people end up carrying ideas with them for years without any form of validation. It helps to have a few sounding boards. Is ChatGPT a good brainstorming partner? Perhaps.
Manager’s fear: A few years ago, I wrote about 3 reasons why managers don’t throw their toughest challenge to their teams. The single biggest reason is fear of perceived incompetence. They feel they get paid to solve problems and if they share their challenge with the team, they might be perceived as incompetent. It gives confidence when you solve a problem and get your team to implement your solution. This works best when you have been in the system for a long time and know the domain very well. However, when you start managing an existing team, you may not be the domain expert. And this approach may not work.
Why care about small ideas? Continuous improvement as a systematic approach has been around for over a hundred years. Our book presents stories from Toyota, Titan, and TVS. Many organizations continue to highlight the number of ideas and the number of employees participating in continuous improvement programs in their annual reports. For example, the Asian Paints FY23 annual report says that there were 7000+ improvement suggestions submitted. Having said that I have met several leaders who don’t consider continuous improvement worth the cost. What matters to them are big bets. As a result, participation becomes unimportant. Participation thrives when small ideas are encouraged.
Participation in virtual teams: Virtual teams have been around for a while but their presence increased during and post-Covid era. As people started working from home, formal brainstorms and tea-coffee chats diminished. As video calls started taking time, initiatives focusing on not-so-urgent issues took a backseat. And participation in innovation-related initiatives went down. Getting people to participate in anything other than deliveries became a challenge at least in some organizations.In short, participation may be one way of building an idea pipeline. However, there are situations in which participation may not work or one may be uncomfortable sharing the ideas. Perhaps ChatGPT is your partner. Problems may be defined and solved by individuals and implemented through teams if they are the managers. So yeah, skip step 3 if you don’t need it.