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High involvement innovation

In an uncertain world there can’t be many organizations which don’t recognize the importance of innovation – and the need to mobilize as much effort behind that task as possible. One of the great opportunities open to all of them is to engage the creativity of all employees in the organization – as one manager memorably put it, the big benefit is that ‘with every pair of hands you get a free brain!’

There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. Some of it comes from individual companies like Toyota which, since it began asking its employees to contribute ideas in the 1960s has received around 50 million suggestions for improvement (and implemented the vast majority of them). And some of it comes through sector and national studies which regularly highlight the contribution employees can make to sustained continuous improvement. It’s not just manufacturing – all sectors, including public services, can mobilize the same effect.

Right now there’s great emphasis on looking outside – the world of open innovation in which ‘not all the smart guys work for us’ is recognized and driving a search to find those smart guys out there with whom we could connect. And whilst this is undoubtedly a rich source of inspiration we shouldn’t forget the internal world of employees and their ideas. It’s one of the paradoxes of modern management that we have the key resource of creativity fitted as standard equipment in every person we employ – yet many organizations fail to recognize or manage to tap into this. The father of modern quality management thinking, W. Edwards Deming, used to call this ‘the gold in the mine’ – our challenge is finding up-to-date and effective ways to extract this mineral!

High involvement innovation (HII) isn’t as easy as it sounds. Yes, everyone can be creative and has plenty of ideas for improving things within the organization. But enabling them to do so – and sustaining their involvement – depends on creating an environment in which it can flourish. We were involved in a major research programme during the late 1990s which looked at this challenge across many countries and our key finding was that HII is not a binary thing, an on-off switch.   It needs to become a core part of the culture – ‘the way we do things around here’ if it is to have a sustained impact and become a strategic resource. And that depends on building nine core capabilities:

  1. Establish HII as a core value – little improvements from everyone (LIFE) matter in this organization

  2. Recognition and reward – this core value is reinforced by relevant incentives (and this is less about money than about being listened to, empowered, enabled to contribute)

  3. Training and development to support learning about how to be an effective innovator

  4. Establishing a core process to enable HII to happen – including allowing time and space for it to operate

  5. Idea management systems which give feedback and action to ideas

  6. Facilitation and support for HII – coaching, training, structures, etc.

  7. Leadership – entrepreneurial responsibility and walking the talk

  8. Strategic direction – policy deployment where bottom up capability meets top down clear direction about where and why improvements matter

  9. Building dynamic capability – continuously reviewing and updating the HII approach

These challenges remain pretty much the key starting points for anyone thinking about implementing HII today. But, building on that last point, one of the big shifts in the context for HII is the powerful role which new technology is playing in creating enabling platforms. Where the old HII schemes often fell down was in idea management – simply capturing and processing suggestions in a largely manual system led to delays, lack of feedback, patchy implementation and eventual fall-off in interest and enthusiasm. Now there are many platforms which not only allow employees to make suggestions but also enable others to comment and build on those suggestions. They can go further, volunteering their help in implementation, providing experienced evaluation and creating teams willing and able to move entrepreneurial ideas forward form the inside. Linking such platforms and the capability they release to key strategic targets for the organization – policy deployment – can provide a powerful new innovation engine.

(More details on the original research which we conducted can be found here, together with links to some cases and video material:

And the network of researchers continues to operate today; the ‘Continuous Innovation Network (CINet)’ offers a vehicle for sharing ideas and experiences amongst researchers and practitioners interested in HII. See for more).

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