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Innovation is an optional activity, no matter what a company’s leaders say or how many dire idioms get thrown around about the fatal danger of failing to innovate. People don’t innovate to order. And yet there will always be reminders around us that even giants can fall: some of us will forever feel a small pang each time we pass a Blockbuster-turned-donut shop, its iconic, ticket-stub signage now stripped and faded – a relic.
Vigilant business leaders fear becoming irrelevant. That is why we must learn how to encourage our employees to want to engage in innovation – not because they are under threat, but because they are eager to be engaged.
Innovation Hurdles and Missed Potential
Driving innovation from the top down is wonderful when it works out. But according to Dr. Alan G. Robinson, renowned business innovation author and consultant, some 80% of an organization’s innovation is driven by ideas that come bottom-up, originating from the grassroots or as incremental innovations. We can’t forget about these ideas or the front-line employees that generate them. One hurdle many large companies face is that many people outside of leadership simply do not believe it’s within their job description to contribute to their company’s innovation efforts. Unfortunately, many executives perpetuate this falsehood by holding stubbornly onto the very information that, if presented to the right employee, could lead to valuable ideas and results.
Working with leading innovation teams and programs in multiple industries, on multiple continents, and in various cultural settings, I’ve found it necessary for business leaders to work harder on defining what innovation means for their company. It’s not just the practice of inventing new products or coming up with new ways of doing things. I’ve found companies are most successful when they approach innovation as a catalyst for culture change, a means of driving employee engagement, and a methodology for turning good ideas into great outcomes. In my experience, companies that achieve the most successful results have one important thing in common: they lay bare their business challenges, broken systems, and innovation initiatives before the crowd. The way to get the best innovation is by crowdsourcing it.
How Leaders Can Crowdsource Innovation Effectively
Like innovation itself, the crowd can be complex. The people who know your business best are the most well-placed to help you address the many kinds of questions and challenges that crop-up in the day-to-day running of a company — from outmoded business processes, to product and service improvements, and customer experience. This often means not just employees but others in your company ecosystem like customers and business partners. Research shows that crowdsourcing innovation can produce up to 65 percent more actionable ideas than traditional sources. Analysts at Gartner predict that within the next three years, over 75 percent of high-performing enterprises will be using some type of crowdsourcing to improve business processes.
Here are three critical guidelines for effective crowdsourced innovation:

  1. Trust your crowd. If deferring to subject matter experts was the answer to your problems, there wouldn’t be a reason to reach out to your crowd to begin with. But the crowd is powerful because of the countless perspectives and experiences of the people within it. Do not make the mistake of imagining that the crowd is somehow inferior to experts or leadership. It is not.

Polaris Industries, a manufacturer of ATVs and other unique vehicles, learned this lesson quickly. The company’s innovation program was traditional and entirely top-down when it began. It was exceptionally difficult for Polaris to discover great ideas, and even when they did, the process to develop them was painfully slow. Polaris had no way to predict the risk, value, or viability for an idea, which made it hard to secure executive sponsorship and budget for innovation projects. But when it turned to the crowd, Polaris achieved an 80 percent reduction in the time it took to discover, assess, and execute new ideas. The outcome was their revolutionary Slingshot motorcycle and three other bestselling vehicles. Turning to its crowd also changed Polaris’ R&D process and reduced time to market dramatically – a distinct competitive advantage in a cramped vehicle market.

  1. Close the loop. You will be asking a lot of big questions, especially if your company is facing major challenges. When you get feedback, remember to do something with it.

One company closing the loop successfully is Pfizer, Inc. Pfizer is a pillar within the pharmaceuticals market, comprising 77,000 healthcare experts, researchers, doctors, scientists, nurses, pharmacists, manufacturers, and more. This hugely diverse “crowd” is directly responsible for Pfizer’s dominant position in the healthcare sector. But it can also sometimes hinder innovation efforts, since it is often difficult for experts to think outside of established patterns and processes. When Pfizer turned to crowdsourcing, everything changed. Their first innovation challenge to identify and select ideas from a crowd of employees, customers, and/or partners had nearly 6,000 participants and resulted in 660 viable ideas. It also led to a massive jump in employee engagement — 330% more people submitting and voting on ideas than the company originally targeted. The lesson? People want to share their ideas, but you have to give them the right space to do it. Pfizer’s OWNIT! innovation program encourages all employees to consistently contribute ideas and make a positive impact on the business. New ideas are met with openness and careful consideration, rather than doubt or apathy, which promotes an innovative culture free of silos and ripe with engagement. The first time Pfizer turned to the crowd to drive innovation, they had nearly 6,000 participants, 650+ viable ideas, and a massive jump in employee engagement — 330% of their original goal — based just on participant interaction with ideas.

  1. Face the music. It can be tempting for company leaders to seek out validation rather than innovation. Your crowd will give you the sometimes hard and uncomfortable truth; but just cherry-picking the palatable results will only move you incrementally forward, if not backward. Listening to what your crowd is actually saying (even if you aren’t getting the answers you expected) is critical.

Cambia Health Solutions, a healthcare organization serving 100 million consumers across the United States, understands how important this is. In an industry inundated with red tape and slow to change, it was daunting to engage a wide variety of employees in a meaningful, valuable way. But a recent challenge run by Cambia resulted in 144 viable ideas for new products and services. Over eight weeks, Cambia created a prototype product based on the leading ideas.
The Crowdsourcing Journey
What we must do as leaders is encourage exploration. We must be willing to accept that we are not always asking the right questions. We may not have the whole story because it has not been told yet. And the people who are helping us shape that story are perhaps the most important part of it. Above all, we must remember that continuous learning — and questioning, and adapting, and yes, failing — is an inherent part of innovating successfully.