Where do great ideas come from?

young male employee explaining business analysis to female coworkerThis article from World Conference Program Advisory Chair Stacy Wilson, ABC, is the next in a series which offers reflections on issues and innovations to be explored at the IABC World Conference.

Years ago, a client asked me to help them generate more patents through improved communication with employees. For that organization, patents were an important part of business success. The more patents, the more new products they could sell and the more intellectual property they could license.

But for each idea worth patenting, an organization must generate tens of thousands of ideas. So, the first step is to just turn on the flow of ideas. Which, begs the question, where do ideas come from?

Seth Mattison is a young disruptor. He pushes executive thinking on everything from organizational structure to communication channels to dress code to what an “office” should be like. This “voice of the millennials” talks about the fact that ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. Seth brings his enthusiastic and positive perspective to the keynote stage at the 2016 IABC World Conference in June.

Seth’s view is that our work structure used to depend on all the great ideas coming down from the top. But, business has become complex and those top leaders can’t be singularly responsible for all the great ideas anymore.

Were top leaders every really the singular source of great ideas?

I don’t think so. The story I use here is a past client in the building products industry. One of their many products was pipe insulation. One day, one of their truck drivers happened to observe a plumber measuring a pipe and then measuring the insulation in order to cut it to the correct length. The driver returned to the office and shared with someone else his idea of printing the units of measurement right on the insulation itself, thus saving the plumber time. It was a hit!

Now, I believe this story is more than 20 years old. Great ideas have been embedded in our organizations at every level, in every function, in every location, forever. That’s not new. What is new is what we do about it.

Technology enables greater sharing, learning, brainstorming, collaboration, etc., especially across boundaries such as time and geography. Incubating new business ideas until they are ready to launch is a corporate trend. Evolving an organizational culture that enables transparency and freedom to innovate is celebrated.

Fast forward to April 2016. I have another client in an industry with a lot of employees working remotely. Cost containment, productivity, safety and innovation are the hallmarks of the industry. They lean heavily on technology for basic business processes (e.g., widget documentation) and industry practices (e.g., maintenance and safety). And yet, they do not leverage technology to enable idea generation or sharing.

  • Got a great idea to streamline a process?
  • Got a cool approach to reduce costs?
  • Got a safety near-miss example others could learn from?

“We don’t communicate well with each other,” one employee told me this week. Like so many of our other clients, this one too is paying for a big pile of technology they aren’t using. They’ve got all the collaboration tools they could hope for at their fingertips. But, they turned it all off. No innovation happening here.

I wonder what their millennial employees are thinking? Are they thinking, “Only the top dogs have the good ideas and I’ve got to pay my dues”? Or, are they thinking another company is looking pretty good right now? I bet Seth could shed insight. Let’s ask him in June.

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