Bridging the Insight-Decision Divide

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Team, what are we going to do about the stagnant revenue from our flower shops?
This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

A very common scenario in corporations is when senior leaders realize the business is facing challenges the company is not on track to overcome.  They decide they need to take a step back and re-examine their strategy.  At this point they will typically hire an expensive consulting firm to help them work through their new strategy.  The consulting firm works for several months gathering data, interviewing employees and customers, and eventually delivering their recommendations.  When the turnaround strategy is unveiled with much fanfare, many employees are unimpressed – “We already knew this and it wouldn’t have cost the company millions of dollars if they had just asked us.”

Because many employees have a front row view of customer and product issues, they are frequently bombarded with insights that spark ideas that could jump-start growth.  But many companies often don’t even ask employees for their ideas.  And if employees voice ideas, they are often not listened to.  But what’s even more pervasive is that employees who are fully subscribed to their “day jobs” won’t have time to explore their insights.  These ideas are destined to become hidden assets.

In most companies, decisions on what ideas to explore are made by senior leaders. But these senior leaders don’t have the same proximity to insights because they spend most of their working day meeting with other senior leaders. We call this the Insight-Decision Divide.

In our upcoming book, Grassroots Innovation in the Enterprise, Jeff Zias and I will describe how companies can bridge this divide. The most foundational facets of our Grassroots Innovation Model are providing time and freedom for employees to spend time on their ideas. With time and freedom, employees have the “air cover” to follow up on insights without having to worry that they’ll get chewed out by their manager for spending time on something she may not consider a priority.

When we describe the Insight-Decision Divide to companies we advise, the concept always resonates with our audience. But this is often accompanied by sentiments of resignation such as “implementing a time and freedom program at our company will be too hard”, “we’re too busy”, or “it will be too difficult to sell to other leaders”.

The good news is that you can start bridging the divide with baby steps. With the momentum you hopefully start to build up, you can eventually develop a full-fledged innovation program that incorporates all facets of the Grassroots Innovation Model.

Here are a few ideas for baby steps:

  • Organize a hackathon: Maybe you can’t get the company to commit to giving every employee time to work on the ideas but you can probably get leaders to agree to a one day hackathon. In the hackathon, employees will be invited to bring their ideas and work on storyboards and prototypes to be shared at the end of the day. The hackathon will be tangible evidence to employees that leaders are interested in what they think.  (Please read Jeff’s list on how to not screw up a hackathon).
  • Install an idea collaboration tool: Even if employees don’t have time to work on their ideas, you can start by asking them to write their ideas down. An innovation management system like BrightIdea or Spigit will allow employees to see their colleagues’ ideas and provide feedback. Senior leaders can use these ideas as input into their resource allocation process.
  • Appoint innovation rotations: Put together a small team of some of your most entrepreneurial employees and challenge them to solve one of the company’s most gnarly problems. Give the team decision-making autonomy but time box their assignment to what you think the company can reasonably afford (could be as short as a few days or a week but probably no longer than three months).

Keep in mind that these baby steps are not meant to constitute a sustainable program. For reasons we outline in our book, without a fully formed Grassroots Innovation Model, your early momentum will eventually peter out when the novelty is gone. But the baby steps at least provide you a way to get started in the face of institutional impedance.

Have you tried any of these baby steps or other ideas on how to get an innovation program started at your company? We’d love to hear from you and share some of your stories in our book.