Isenberg Professor's Book Fosters Idea-Driven Organizations
April 16, 2014
Many academics study ideas and innovation, but few focus on generating ideas on an organization's "front lines," where much of the work gets done, observes Alan Robinson, a professor in Isenberg's Department of Operations and Information Management. An organization's senior managers offer valuable big-picture and strategic perspectives, but they are typically far removed from the hands-on insights that come with employees' face-to-face interactions with customers and the work itself, he emphasizes. In a well-conceived idea system, in fact, those front-line insights, should account for 80% of an organization's overall improvement, notes Robinson in his just-published book, The Idea-Driven Organization (Barrett-Koehler).
Coauthored with former Isenberg professor, Dean Schroeder, the book offers example after example of high-performing idea systems in action-in dozens of retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, financial service businesses, hospitality companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. But The Idea-Driven Organization is also cautionary: To yield lasting dividends, it emphasizes, an idea system must be painstakingly integrated into its parent organization. It is counterproductive, then, to view an idea system as the flavor of the month or a snap-on innovation. (That includes the paternalistic suggestion box, whose failures the book documents.) Instead, the high performance idea system will more often than not entail profound organizational and cultural change.
The devil is in the details. To that end, the authors roll out a comprehensive framework for an idea system's gestation, implementation, and adaptation. That includes trial-and-error alignment of the system with an organization's strategy, structure, goals, processes, policies, and procedures. You don't just layer an idea system onto an existing organization, write the authors: The entire organization must be aligned in its support. That includes its vertical integration among the organization's layers of management and its horizontal integration among its departments. A misaligned system where, for example, needless purchasing and IT rules create bottlenecks, can stop the flow of ideas in their tracks.
In subsequent chapters, the book dissects idea-process approaches involving idea meetings, idea boards, and Kaizen teian systems. It details a nine-step framework for implementing idea systems that begins by securing leadership's long-term commitment and concludes (ironically), with the system's never-concluding continuous improvement. It shows how to extract more and better ideas by improving problem-finding skills, including idea mining, which reveals ideas embedded within other ideas and their novel perspectives. And finally, it turns to larger innovations like breakthrough technologies, which the authors insist can benefit hugely from an idea system's multitude of smaller front-line ideas and the infrastructure to disseminate them.
Robinson says that with his book and a will to walk its talk, any organization, with the managerial humility and commitment to nurture bottom-up ideas, can become a dynamo of impactful ideas. "In the book, we've tried to strike a balance between readability [through stories and examples] and the actionable details of building a high-performance system," he explains. "Our aim is to reach and motivate intelligent managers. In that, we're happy to share our approach, including the details to make a high-performance system happen."