Curtis Carlson, CEO of California-based research institute SRI international, argues that the future lies with companies that encourage their lower-level employees to be critical thinkers. “More and more,” Carlson says, “innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly and dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.” America the Pitiful, Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct 3 — Oct 9th 2011.
I’m a great advocate of bottom up innovation. My personal and professional experience is that just about all the great ideas generally came out of folks doing their everyday jobs and living their everyday life. I’ve seen dozens of downward directed “improvement” efforts in government and industry and I can’t recall a single one that made a difference — unless somewhere deep in the organization an individual or small team adopted it and made it their own. In some cases, where a team started to run with an innovation I’ve even seen the “official implementation team” attempt to discourage or block those teams from taking their own initiatives!
Once when I was arguing with a Director of Quality on how best to implement an initiative in my project, he responded by listing all his certifications and training (CMMI, Six Sigma, ISO, PMP, etc.). He then suggested that he knew how everything should be done and we had to do it his way because of all those pieces of paper. His effort had no obvious effect while our initiative to finally deliver a huge project on time succeeded. He was implementing improvement initiatives as his job (hence all those certifications qualified him for his position) and we were just trying to do a project (to produce a product) and we were innovating as needed. We were in fact trying to support his effort and leverage it to our advantage, but he wasn’t interested in our ideas, only in doing it “his way” which was ultimately counterproductive and out of touch with a real ongoing project.
A lot of initiatives are often great ideas and things that we could benefit from by doing. Top down driven innovations and changes, however, often lose touch with the reality of the workplace. The trick, in my experience, has always been to engage and empower folks and not to assign experts and project managers to “impose” the changes on them. Worse yet, I’ve concluded, is to make improvement and innovation a separate job description or career field. All this may appear at first to be a chaotic and unmanaged approach to innovation, but the successful results speak for themselves.
Share examples of successful bottom up or top down innovations you have personally experienced.