Mr. Jobs is known for being deeply involved in the creation and development of his company’s products. But in many highly innovative companies, great ideas come from all levels of an organization, not just from the top, experts say. At most companies, the problem is, employees have little input.
Research has found that the average U.S. employee’s ideas, big or small, are implemented only once every six years, says Alan G. Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More innovative companies typically implement far more employee ideas, Dr. Robinson says.
Some companies, such as Google Inc., provide workers time for ‘unofficial activity’─set time to work on creative ideas. Giving employees time for open-ended ideas can be expensive, especially with many companies short-staffed, but it may pay off. ‘When managers cut to the bone, one of the things they stifle is innovation,’ says Dr. Robinson.
Google’s Gmail, Google News and some of the company’s other products came from its policy of letting engineers use 20% of their time for company-related projects of their choosing. There have been numerous home-grown product busts, as well, such as Google Wave and Google Buzz, the latter of which included a major privacy flap.
Executing ideas is often tougher than generating them. Developing new ideas involves a certain amount of experimentation and failure, as well as prioritizing of the most promising ideas. The key, says Dr. Govindarajan of Dartmouth, is to keep development costs low and test assumptions quickly so that companies can afford to experiment.
Observation can help companies understand not just what people say they want, but what they really need. Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies innovation, and a co-founder of Innosight LLC, a Boston consulting company, says Procter & Gamble Co.’s new-product success rate in recent years came from the company observing that people were concerned about how their clothes smell (Febreze) and were always looking for simpler ways to clean the floor (Swiffer.)
Note the importance of direct observations, of not only what consumers say but also do. Also, look at how simple institutions like Google’s Policy of allowing engineers to use 20% of their time for products of their choosing impact innovation!