This blog first appeared as Dave Farber's post for Medium
By Dave Farber
I hear it far too often: innovation should be part of everyone’s job. To that point, when I searched “innovation isn’t everyone’s job,” Google returned only four results. All of them directed to the same article, which made the point that while innovation isn’t everyone’s job, it should be. Executives are constantly lamenting that new ideas only come out of “the labs” or “Product” when, in fact, the company is made up of thousands of people with great ideas. I understand why this can seem foolhardy or disheartening. But in the same way that I don’t want just anyone fixing my plumbing or representing me in court, I don’t want just anyone being responsible for innovation.
That’s not to say that there’s no room for innovation in departments that aren’t traditionally responsible for putting out new products. If we take Finance as an example, maybe there’s a better way of processing payroll. Now, of course, there are other clever accounting “innovations” that we don’t want to encourage, but there are certainly opportunities for advancement. Process improvements or innovation to support larger changes in the business (e.g., strategy shifts, Costovation initiatives) are classic opportunities for non-Product departments to get involved in innovation.
And I don’t want to suggest that people in non-Product roles don’t have good ideas for things customers may want. They likely do. And — as I’ll get to — there are ways of capturing those ideas and evaluating them. But that doesn’t mean that everyone with an idea should be trying to turn it into the next big thing. The type of innovation where people crowd into brightly colored rooms and shout out everything that comes to mind simply doesn’t work. Innovation is a deliberate process, and it requires specific skills, frameworks, and training.
Most people acknowledge that innovation is a process. We even continue to hire dedicated Innovation teams. Yet we still try to make innovation everyone’s job. There are countless articles telling us why to do so and how to do it. So before I get to my advice for building a culture of innovation and capturing ideas from outside your Product and Insights teams, I want to highlight five reasons why we should stop trying to make innovation part of everyone’s job.
It devalues the process and the role of your Innovation function. The more we propagate the idea that anyone can innovate, the less we value a formal innovation process. Without that process, there’s no way to ensure that your efforts will be fruitful or repeatable. While the idea of a Eureka moment may be inspiring, companies can’t survive off them. Innovation needs to be about consistently generating solutions in a way that advances the organization’s defined strategic objectives. Just because there’s a great idea, it doesn’t mean your business is the right team to pursue it.
Additionally, diffusing innovation responsibility throughout an organization creates confusion about what your Innovation team should be doing. It reinforces the notion that they should be working on their own specific projects in isolation. Rather, a strong Innovation team collaborates with other functions to capture customer insights, understand where processes can be improved, and share learnings with others. Rather than making everyone responsible for innovation, make your Innovation team responsible for connecting with others.
It negatively impacts morale. Having a great idea that makes the company a ton of money sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, that’s far from the norm. Instead, I often see companies set up a digital platform for employees to submit ideas. There’s an initial wave of excitement, employees submit tons of ideas, the company realizes it has no way of sorting through or evaluating so many ideas, and nothing happens. After months of hearing nothing, employees get discouraged and go back to their day jobs. They take away a single learning — the company’s passion for innovation is nothing more than lip service. While there are ways to get a broader group of employees involved in innovation, traditional idea banks can be outright harmful to your innovation culture if not implemented carefully.
It over-emphasizes product innovation. When companies try to get everyone involved in innovation, they often skip the crucial step of explaining the different kinds of innovation. Things like business model innovation and process innovation are overlooked while employees work to come up with new features, products, and services. While product innovation is important, it’s also the most common. It’s rarely what sets the most successful companies apart, and it’s generally what the company is already well-equipped to handle. If the goal is to get more people involved in innovation, it’s important to have an organized way of identifying how their skills and ideas can translate into different forms of innovation.
It decentralizes crucial learnings. Like any good business function, innovation needs to be managed. When innovation becomes part of everyone’s job, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening. Similar work may be happening on different teams, and there is limited opportunity to learn from the mistakes and research of others. While it’s possible to broaden the scope of who’s involved in innovation efforts, it takes a full system of governance, processes, metrics, and tools to ensure that that new breadth is productive.
It drains resources. Making innovation part of everyone’s job means forcing everyone to take on a second day job. For some, the challenge will be exciting and energizing. For others, it will be draining. Those who end up reluctantly participating — or even those who are willing but lack the right skills — will invariably produce output that isn’t very good. At scale, the resources spent on failed innovations — particularly if there is no system in place to capture learnings — can add up quickly. And having too many innovation projects at one time can spread companies too thin, making it hard to focus great people and limited resources on the big initiatives that will really move the needle. Companies that excel at innovation use their limited resources more effectively. They devote the bulk of their time and money to the most promising projects. Then they earmark remaining funds for trendspotting and primary customer research, or they pay to bring in outside experts with varying viewpoints.
Building a culture of innovation is a worthy pursuit. In a piece I wrote for Forbes, I even outlined a number of strategies that a variety of large companies have found effective for doing so. But taking the next step and making everyone an innovator is a step that may ultimately cause more harm than good. Instead, it’s important to build a centralized structure for managing innovation and to empower members of your Innovation team to be champions. Train them to reach out to other employees to elicit ideas that reflect management’s strategic goals. Teach them how to act as shepherds for employees who want to participate in targeted innovation challenges. Your trained innovators and your large workforce are both assets that you can leverage. But that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be doing the same thing.
Dave Farber is a strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth. He is a co-author of the award-winning book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.