Engaging Collaborative Innovation’s Losers

Change benefits some more than others. The practice of collaborative innovation, which by design offers transformative change, is no different. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins advises campaign teams on engaging people who find themselves on the losing end of the practice. Ignoring their concerns jeopardizes the initiative.

Losing It

The practice of collaborative innovation, with its use of crowdsourcing and games, has garnered a lot of attention. Its ties to social media endow it with a halo effect. People accept engaging colleagues in novel ways to define the organization’s strategic intent, idea by idea and campaign by campaign, as a universal good.

New practices introduce changes that benefit some and harm—or limit the opportunities—of others, however. People who want their organizations to embrace the practice of collaborative innovation must tend to the latter group. If they do not, then those people will subvert the initiative because they perceive downside, only. Human nature reflects the jungle, not the garden.

In this article I identify winners and losers that the practice creates. I pose questions that verbalize the latter’s concerns. Campaign teams increase the odds that their organizations embrace the practice when they engage each party in the early phases of their work.

The Sponsors

Campaign teams worry that they will fail to elicit interest from potential sponsors in the organization. They throw a party. Nobody comes. What I observe, in reality, is that campaign teams find themselves with an overabundance of sponsors—especially after the team has run the first, successful campaign. Success breeds success. Demand outstrips supply.

Here, the winners are the people—often senior leaders—who find themselves at the front of the queue. The losers are those who find themselves at the back. Perhaps the organization has embraced innovation as a core element of strategy. Perhaps the latter want to embrace the practice to express leadership and support for the strategy. The program cannot accommodate them.

The campaign team has two critical questions to address.

  • Does the leadership team have a shared understanding of priorities and, by extension, has the campaign team given the leadership team a way to visualize where those priorities fall, relative to strategic intent? Does the queue make sense? (Readers may want to review my article on introducing the Balanced Scorecard into the practice of collaborative innovation for ideas on framing the critical questions that map to strategic intent.)
  • What possibilities exist to increase the resource allocated to the program so that it can accommodate more challenges and, thus, more sponsors? Can interdepartmental funding be used to fund additional work and to signal each sponsor’s level of interest (i.e., auction places in the queue to the highest bidder)?

The losers resent their place in line. They may use their power to work against the practice if they feel the campaign team has played favorites. Do not assume they accept the status quo.

The Middle Managers

Imagine that you manage a brilliant campaign. Three members of the community, in particular, have contributed compelling ideas that resonate. The sponsors want to pursue them. Further, the three contributors, to their credit, see an opportunity to more fully realize their leadership potential by pursuing the ideas from the front to the back ends of innovation. The sponsors—senior executives—choose to give them this opportunity as both a reward and as a powerful message to the organization that they support employee development.

Who loses? The people who depend on the three to do their day jobs suffer. The loss intensifies in operational environments (e.g., assembly and customer service groups), where losing a person in whole or part can seriously hurt performance. Often, the organization identifies a middle manager to own the performance metric tied to their work. They tie their compensation to the number.

The campaign team has three critical questions on the issue of fairness to resolve.

  • What price do we as an organization pay for our commitment to innovation? Innovation, by its nature, introduces change, starting with changes in how people spend their time.
  • What steps have we taken to make space—time, money, and physical room—to incubate ideas?
  • Organizations tend to focus on recruiting and retaining employees. What opportunities does the practice offer to develop them by inviting them to pursue their ideas, while compensating their managers for the loss of their daily work?

I do not see cases where an organization can implement an idea directly as the outcome of a collaborative innovation campaign, with no loss or disruption to existing work. A commitment to practice collaborative innovation requires, by extension, a commitment to incubate the ideas and the innovators that emerge.

The Campaign Team

Campaign team members have day jobs, too: taxing day jobs. Thus, embarking on the practice of collaborative innovation represents another item on their “to do” list, regardless of how powerful and compelling the approach seems to them. The sponsor, for example, may expect campaign team members to lend their expertise in evaluating ideas that resonate with the crowd. A campaign that surfaces 100 ideas represents a substantial commitment if people need 30 minutes to review each one.

The overworked campaign team member suffers as the loser.

People who manage their organization’s collaborative innovation program do well to address this issue of fairness. Otherwise, they risk losing the member’s support and, potentially, critical subject matter expertise should the sponsor want to run a subsequent campaign.

Here, the campaign team has several questions to address.

  • What possibilities does addressing the challenge in question offer the campaign team members, such that investing time in the activity makes sense? For example, if a campaign team member is expected to reduce the cost of their product, then a challenge to the community on how they might do so will more likely seem like a good investment of their time. The challenge complements their day job.
  • To what extent does the practice of collaborative innovation, in and of itself, become a part of their day job? What price does the organization and the sponsor pay in return for requesting the campaign team member’s time?

So often, people ask others to participate in activities, regardless of whether the requestor can articulate the benefit of their doing so. A discussion within the organization on this front, followed by a refiguring of performance objectives, may make a lot of sense and help people get on the same page in terms of what contributes a good use of time.

Organizations that rely on annual reviews to assess and reward performance have an opportunity to incorporate the practice of collaborative innovation into their scheme in order to ensure alignment, for example.

Final Food for Thought

Campaign teams immerse themselves in the mechanics of developing and launching campaigns. Understandable. The practice of collaborative innovation represents a new frontier for the organization. They want to master the work.

Yet, the initiative succeeds by how well the campaign team engages the losers that the practice creates. The mechanics of the practice become easier—possible, even—when they succeed in doing so. Fail to do so, and the campaign team sets itself up for an untold number of unpleasant surprises.

To this end, consider using a simple pro-con chart to capture your thinking and plan your engagements with the parties. Figure 1 shows an example. Your program will generate its own list and questions.

 

Figure 1: pro con list to identify people who may be harmed by the practice of collaborative innovation

Click to enlarge

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities. Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.
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