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Summary of “The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-Up Ideas”

Authors: Alan G. Robinson & Dean M. Schroeder; ISBN number: 9781626561236
Posted: June 16, 2014
Summary by: Melissa Ly, a CDOT Process Improvement Intern from the University of Colorado at Denver

In Ideas Are Free, Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder argue that organizations are overlooking their most powerful resource for innovation and growth: frontline employees. This is supported by the 80/20 principle: 80 percent of an organization’s potential is in ideas from the frontline, and 20 percent is in ideas from management. Using Ideas Are Free as a foundation, Robinson and Schroeder expanded their frontline ideas research in their sequel, The Idea-Driven Organization.

The primary objective of The Idea-Driven Organization is to provide the framework for organizations to become idea-driven. In general, idea-driven organizations are those that are directed from the top but the ideas are driven from the bottom; this contrasts traditional organizations, where ideas and directions are driven from the top.

A major problem preventing organizations from becoming bottom driven is people’s natural tendency to assume the command-and-control role as they rise up in an organization. Signals within an organization may continually remind managers that they are superior to their employees (e.g., reserved parking); this creates a gap between management and the workers. To combat this problem, Robinson and Schroeder propose hiring and promoting the right managers and keeping current managers grounded. Particular characteristics to look for in a manager include: humility, good listener, ability to coach, improvement oriented, good communicator, execution minded, and ability to work with others. To keep managers grounded, mechanisms, like transparency, hold managers accountable.

Another common obstacle organizations must tackle is eliminating misalignments (aka re-aligning); an organization must create a culture to support frontline ideas and construct management systems that actively generate and implement the ideas. This process is termed aligning. Building off Ideas Are Free, Robinson and Schroeder develop a framework for alignment. There are two main ingredients for alignment:

  1. Strategy, and
  2. The management system.

An organization’s structure and goals make up the strategic aspects of alignment. There are two elements to align in an organization’s structure: vertical and horizontal. Vertical alignment, the alignment of top-level goals and actions at all levels of the organization, requires clear consensus of organizational-level goals and an effective translation of top-level goals into lower-level goals. This includes setting goals that are in the interest of the people who are expected to achieve them.

Horizontal alignment is the assurance that branches of an organization work well together. To achieve this, Robinson and Schroeder suggest reconfiguring the physical workplace and cutting down barriers between departments, creating an ambitious organization-wide vision, utilizing the internal customer concept, or using a properly designed performance bonus.

In order to align an organization’s management system for a smooth flow of ideas, there needs to be a commitment to investing in new ideas. To do this, four areas should to be considered:

  1. Budgeting and resourcing. The three most common resources needed in bottom-up idea proliferation are time, money, and assistance from support functions.
  2. Policies and Rules. To prevent the creation of counterproductive policies, organizations need to perform thoughtful analysis before generating and enforcing new policies. Often times, a policy is not needed.
  3. Processes and Procedures. Processes and procedures need to be owned by the people using them, and should reflect the organization’s accumulated knowledge at the given time.
  4. Evaluation and Reward System. Ideas should not have their own separate rewards system; rather, it should be incorporate into performance.

With an understanding of realignment, Robinson and Schroeder introduce instructions to preparing, initiating, and managing an idea-driven organization. There are three idea processes archetypes:

  1. The “Kaizen Teian” Process. This archetype is similar to a streamlined suggestion box, and requires a culture of improvement with an emphasis on proactive individuals. Team-Based Processes, a special case of Kaizen Teian, is designed for employees to bring opportunities for improvement (for example, a problem, an opportunity, or an idea) to their team or department, in hopes of obtaining multiple perspectives.
  2. The Idea Meeting Process. Building on top of Team-Based Processes, the Idea Meeting Process involves regularly scheduled meetings for employees to bring their opportunities for improvement. These meetings include a facilitator, and actions are entered in a tracking system.
  3. The Idea Board Process. This archetype is essentially an Idea Meeting Process, with the addition of an idea board to manage ideas.

Implementing a High-Performing Idea System

Robinson and Schroeder developed a nine-step guide to implementing a high-performing idea system, including potential pitfalls and tips to addressing these pitfalls.

Step 1: Ensure the Leadership’s Long-term Commitment to the New System

Leaders need to understand that the implementation of the system is a long-term initiative. Patience and perseverance is required.

Step 2: Form and Train the Team That Will Design and Implement the System

A team needs to be formed and trained. The team will need power, credibility, and knowledge to design and implement the integrated system.

Step 3: Assess the Organization from an Idea Management Perspective

Assessments will identify any misalignments, find potential challenges to the implementation of the idea initiative, and find opportunities to integrate the idea system to the current system. These assessments are measured by interviews with frontline employees, supervisors, and managers.

Step 4: Design the Idea System

The goal is to come up with a simple system that can handle a large number of ideas efficiently and effectively.

Step 5: Start Correcting Misalignments

It is important to correct for any obvious misalignments prior to the launch of the new system.

Step 6: Conduct a Pilot Test

A small-scaled test (like in a small set of departments) of the idea system needs to be performed to find unprecedented problems. This pilot test will generate evidence of the system’s value and will develop coaches and champions. Pilot test typically replace uncertainty with anticipated.

Step 7: Assess the Pilot Results, Make Adjustments, and Prepare for the Launch

A full review of the pilot will identify problems with the process, determine whether additional resources will be necessary, and capture lessons learned.

Step 8: Roll Out the System Organization-wide

A gradual roll out of the system ensures resources are adequate, experience is gained from predecessors, and gives reluctant managers time.

Step 9: Continue to Improve the System

The system should continually be improved in order to continually enhance the organization.

To make certain that frontline ideas are continually submitted, especially after the obvious improvements have been addressed, tips and techniques are provided by Robinson and Schroeder. The main approach is to train employees to be better at problem finding. This is done by performing idea activators and idea mining:

- Idea activators are training modules that teach employees new techniques and given new perspectives that assist in discovering ideas.

- Idea mining is the process of digging out implicit perspectives from a set of ideas. As an organization, to increase problem sensitivity, the organization needs the framework to capture and analyze problems. An example would be a system to capture and sort customer feedback.

The Idea-Driven Organization concludes by demonstrating the correlation between bottom-up ideas and an organization’s ability to be consistently innovative. With this clear relationship between the frontline ideas and innovation, Robinson and Schroeder foresee idea-driven organizations becoming prevalent in twenty years.

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