The innovator and the organization: why we don’t go to work to innovate.

This post was originally written as part of IdeaScale’s employee blog series. You can see the full blog at

At IdeaScale we work with many companies who want to “be more innovative”. It’s a blessing and a curse to work on a software that is meant to help with something so broad; we are working on something everyone can engage with, but it takes a little extra work to precisely define the problem you are there to solve each day. Working on the product I tend to be very concerned about well defined problems with good solutions, but I think in this case there is at least one area where our attitudes are probably more important than anything we can build in Java. So often the key for our most successful customers has been to remember to focus on people over process.

One of the things we often see here at Ideascale, is that there is some tension between the role of The Innovator and that of The Organization, making it hard to truly incentivize innovation within a company, government agency or any other larger group. The actions of an innovator are, by necessity, risky, non-hierarchal and deserving of exceptional reward. This contrasts with most of our organizations, which have been built up to effectively manage large groups towards common goals and, therefore, thrive off stability, order and chain-of-command. The reaction is often to silo innovation to some combination of R&D and board room meetings. Finding systems that empower insight and innovation without breaking organizational structure is the dilemma that largely defines our industry. It’s an important question to answer, because, if we don’t make it worth people’s while, why would they help us innovate?

Companies have to get braver in the ways they reward and trust their employees if they want to truly turn themselves into innovation powerhouses.

It is a problem with very real consequences. Here at IdeaScale we use one stat a lot: the fact that between 1999 and 2009, 50% of the Fortune 500 lost their position on the list as they failed to meaningfully keep pace with the market. This is despite almost 3% of US GDP being spent on R&D.

At the same time there is clear alienation of workers from boardroom goals, with a recent LinkedIn survey showing that only 37% of people in the global workforce are purpose-driven in their work — the rest are coming in, receiving their instructions and clocking out. This is, once again, despite massive investment, with US HR organizations spending almost $3000 per employee.

These two phenomena seem to tell us a strong story; that companies have to get braver in the ways they reward and trust those they interact with if they want them to truly participate in the company’s growth

There is no greater benefit to your employees than empowering them to prove their worth through high-quality delivery of innovation.

In private we see many of our customers starting to do this well; allowing winning ideas to be pitched to the CEO and implemented with the original submitter leading the way. We have seen great external campaigns with demo-days that celebrate the customers or constituents that contributed to moving products/services forward. There is no greater benefit to the people who care about your organization than empowering them to prove their worth through high-quality ideas.

So what does this all mean for the product team here at IdeaScale? We have come up with a phrase I use quite a bit; “be efficient towards ideas, but generous towards people.” It is this attempt that defines some of the tools we want to build for our customers over the coming years. We want to build tools that improve the engagement experience for everyone, by allowing a company to efficiently manage and aggregate input to identify true insight, while at the same time making it possible for a diligent moderation team to make every contribution feel valued. We hope we have some pretty exciting things coming down the road.

On a larger scale, I think it means working with customers and partners to get people talked about more often and earlier in innovation strategy meetings. Tools can help manage these processes, but in the end it’s up to organizations to trust those invested in their solutions. When we have organizations with the flexibility to truly reward a first-year employee with great ideas and when a mechanic in Cleveland with a great idea knows that they will be listened to by the Department of Energy, then we will get the innovative organizations we truly want and it will be because people will want to join us on the journey. We spend every day here at IdeaScale talking about facilitating larger conversations, it’s important we never forget the human element of that.

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