Idea Systems for Greater Adaptability & Competitiveness

July 25, 2012

Alan RobinsonAlan RobinsonBusinesses have vast untapped reservoirs of ideas. Identify and leverage them and your organization will become more adaptive and competitive, notes Alan Robinson, Associate Dean of Isenberg's Full-time MBA program and author of the influential book, Ideas Are Free (Berrett-Koehler). Management, Robinson explains, typically generates 20% of an organization's ideas towards strategic goals. A top-down bias overweights them at the expense of the remaining 80% of ideas that can come from the rest of the organization, i.e., its front-line workers. "My own focus, "he emphasizes, is on that 80%; that's where organizations do most of their productive work."  


Front-line workers have "natural" insights into their own work and innovative ideas for its improvement, Robinson continues.  "They see problems and opportunities that their managers don't-ideas that can save money and time, generate revenues, and make their jobs easier. When implemented, many of those ideas can improve productivity, quality, and the customer experience. They can elevate their companies' agility and competitiveness. The challenge then is to create a system that captures, analyzes, and implements that wealth of untapped insights."


Robinson periodically invites Isenberg students to join him at companies, which he advises in implementing idea systems. (He is a celebrated consultant at scores of organizations in the U.S. and overseas. Ideas Are Free is required reading by all supervisors at GE.)  In his current MBA-level Operations Management course, he engages students in exercises that give them a first-hand appreciation of idea systems-exercises that will prepare them as resilient leaders to unlock and make the most of employee ideas.


 "Employees need to know that when they offer ideas, there is a fast and transparent process for their evaluation and implementation," Robinson emphasizes. "A lot of companies get 50 to 100 ideas per employee implemented per year. You can look at them, read about them. I advocate such systems and holding managers accountable."


The upscale Clarion Hotel in Stockholm, the 2010 recipient of the Alan G. Robinson Award, given annually in Sweden in the professor's honor, demonstrates the power of employee ideas. In 2008, Clarion Stockholm employees generated 2,800 ideas per month, including 90 implementable ideas in October from employees in the hotel's bar.  A sampling of ideas from the bar, he notes, all came from front-line employees:


  • For bottle recycling, drill holes behind the bar and install pipes that empty into recycling bins in the basement.
  • Offer an organic cocktail; customers ask for them.
  • Have the kitchen mark the bar's pre-wrapped sandwiches for easier identification.


And speaking of idea systems, Robinson has honed a process that makes the most of his own research, consulting, and teaching. All three, he says, are intertwined.  "I often return from a consulting trip with specific ideas that I share in the classroom and become the subjects of my research," he notes. "Students help me to sharpen those ideas and refine them through their own research. Some of them join me on subsequent trips to clients where we test our latest thinking. It's a cycle of discovery, experimentation, and learning that has become an idea machine unto itself."