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'Innovation as a Service' and other new thinking spurs corporate idea machines

Crowdsourcing is so 2009. For problem-solving and innovation, look to communities close to your areas of interest.
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Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

In a post a couple of months back, we explored an emerging generation of software that can assist in turning creative inspiration into products by helping employees and managers act on the ideas, to move them through organizations, get financial support, and eventually be productized.

I spoke with Luis Solis, executive vice president for growth & innovation at Imaginatik, one of these new tool providers that is launching what it calls an "innovation as a service" offering, applying the principles of collaboration and crowdsourcing to the innovation process.  What struck me, however, is Luis' emphasis on first enlightening management and promoting a climate of innovation, more so than introducing tools and technology to try to force innovation. Here are his thoughts on what is needed to make innovation happen naturally in today's organizations, then be able to take advantage of new collaborative tools:

What roadblocks to innovation do you typically see in your work?

We see innovation hit a wall because there are no rewards or recognition, and no dedicated time to do this work. People were doing it as 'contraband,' and the only people that do work as contraband are total renegades. Typically, only about 10 to 20 percent of employees are renegades. Imagine the power of saying, 'what if we permitted 80 percent more to do this for five or eight hours out of their work.' What might happen isn't just product or service innovation -- it's model innovation, cost take-out, how to be a better customer service company, innumerable ways that might make this really powerful.

What does it take to promote innovation in a big way?

It takes three ingredients for organizations to innovate, and we find it interesting that organizations are all over the map in terms of maturity in how they do this.

Number one, so simple, you have to make time. Management must be committed to innovation as a long-term strategy. I call it 'demand-side innovation.' Second, you have to fund dedicated resources.  Some people have to call this their job, as opposed to a whole volunteer army. In five or six out of ten organizations that we work with, innovation is a volunteer matrix staff effort, and there’s no one who's calling it their job.

Then there is goal setting. You have to look at goals from a completely different point of view. We advocate stretch goals. Which is what P&G, Whirlpool, GE, 3M and Google do. They set stretch goals. If you just kept doing what you've always done, it's not good enough.

Do poor economic conditions spur innovation out of necessity?

I was just at a conference where we took a poll of attendees on this question. They said the economy was the best thing ever to happen to innovation, especially in the last two years.  Innovation is no longer a 'nice to have,' it's a 'got to have.'  When growth was easy to come by, one can understand why innovation was an optional luxury.  But I would say that innovation is borne of necessity about half the time, whether that is competition, macro-economy, other factors. I would also say that the level of sophisticated management at some enterprises mean, in my opinion, another 30 percent are leadership-led innovation that actually define the economy. The remainder are situations where you get innovation by accident. And that's okay --  meaning somebody developed some product some service or model at your company, and somebody realizes, 'wow, if that's what happened accidentally, imagine if we really paid attention to this stuff.'  Somebody needs to figure out a way to make it a systemic, measured, funded, accountable process.

What about companies where an enlightened individual with an idea refuses to take 'no' for an answer?

If you think about that, it all starts with the culture and the management model that gave permission to that person to do that and didn't fire them.  If the right climate of innovation works, where somebody says 'we are curious about what an employee is doing, and what that may result in,' that's the cool stuff. You create a climate of innovation that makes it okay to fail, that makes it okay to experiment. The reality is most people believe experimenting, tinkering, and exploring your fancy and fashion is a waste of corporate time.

Tell us a bit about Imaginatik.

We’ve gone from a software company to an innovation-as-a-service company.  We now do solutions that include our software, but now we're people and project management strategy rich. Our original product, IdeaCentral, more traditionally looks at inside the four walls of enterprises. In November, were rolling out CommunityCentral, which is open innovation, social media, game technology-based applications.  Now we're helping to enable services to external communities that may have no specific relationship to that organization. It may be consumers, experts, vendors, brokers, and opinion makers.

Are you taking a crowdsourcing approach to innovation?

Its more specific than that, it borrows many of the best practices. What it does is, you may say, 'I'm going to be rolling out three products, I need specific communities constructed of millennials in these states, who are going to  be able to give me insights, ideas and reactions.  We carefully construct useful communities, that are going to be able you to get very specific time based insights and ideas. Could you call it crowdsourcing?  Yes, but unfortunately crowdsourcing is so much of a broader term its misunderstood.  I would call it creative problem-solving through carefully developed communities in the world. Communities could be interest-based, geography-based, cause-based.

Many crowdsourcing initiatives are structured as competitions or contests. Is this a good approach?

Let's think about what is a tournament or challenge is. First off, it is time limited, and time limitation creates urgency.  Number two, with the prize, it solves some of the incentive barriers of 'why should I care, I don't even work for these people.'  The third being that we are kind of hard-wired as human beings to want to win. So I think its a great concept, it is the way most of innovation is going, as opposed to persistent, open suggestion boxes which have failed. This is working way better.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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