Often I read articles or books about top-down vs. bottom-up innovation and why one approach would be better than the other. After spending more than six years in the collaborative innovation space, I would advise going hamburger style!
Pure bottom-up innovation is like throwing a fragmentation bomb
We all remember bottom-up innovation from the old days: that wooden suggestion box left in a common area – begging for a brilliant idea to be put in, but in fact primarily collecting complaints and dust. There is a solid reason why this does not work – this collection box starts off with a simple, loose thought. There is no direct need from the business, no follow-up to the originator of the idea and no business owners to execute. That is not collaborative innovation. It is more like throwing a fragmentation bomb. Although you are sure to hit something, mainly you are creating collateral damages; spending (wasting) management’s attention and time, causing disgruntled employees as their ideas are not being picked up and spending effort on executing ideas that don’t fit the company’s strategy.
Pure top-down innovation is like drinking an aged Bordeaux wine directly from the bottle
Innovation – and especially the creative part of it – flourishes in spare time when your brain is not actively “on the job”. You cannot expect brilliance at the snap of the ‘top-down’ fingers, as they request the next big breakthrough in innovation. Just like aged Bordeaux wines, ideas need air to thrive. While a bottle is an excellent way to package, ship and maintain the quality of the wine, you need to decanter an old wine to take out the depot and let air in to achieve its full potential. Sure, drinking it directly from the bottle will give you wine but it will not be great – often leaving you thirsty from all the tannins remaining.
You need both top-down AND bottom-up innovation for success. See it as a hamburger, where you want to create harmony between the different ingredients to produce the overall best tasting dish. Moreover, the whole burger should match with the rest of the menu. Similarly, you want to generate synergies between your top-down and bottom-up innovation efforts to establish results that matter to the company.
Think of the top bun of your hamburger representing the space where you are looking for ideas. From the top-down, you align your innovation strategy with the overall company goals. You explain your needs in specific innovation assignments and set clear criteria for the ideas that you want from the crowd. That crowd is the bottom bun, providing structure and foundation through their knowledge and experience. Going up and down between these two “buns” is what creates the real magic.
Harmonizing your burger
Top-bun-down, as we said above, sets the stage and explains what ideas the company wants to collect. Besides an overall innovation strategy, my experience is that focused ideation campaigns work best for idea generation. The better and more in-depth you describe the kind of ideas you are looking for, what the overall goals to achieve are, and what the company is willing to invest (resources and budget) to realize the selected ideas, the better the ideas will be. The bottom-bun needs to understand the top-bun vision completely. You cannot expect your innovation crowd to think outside the box if they do not know what the box is, right?
These preparations are crucial and probably one of the most powerful actions that affect the quality of the ideas you will collect.
Before launching your ideation campaign, make sure there are a sponsor and team in place that will bring the ideas to life through maturation and implementation. The sponsor is the face of the campaign and should increase the crowd’s trust that their ideas truly matter. The experts are responsible for providing initial feedback on the ideas and to fuel the discussion by involving their peers.
The Burger Recipe
When the sponsor and experts are in place, we – as the innovation team – organize a campaign definition workshop. The goal is to determine the challenge the business is facing accurately. The sponsor always brings to the workshop what he/she ‘thinks’ the campaign question should be, but another angle might result in better outcomes.
In our workshop we fire thought-provoking questions at the team about their challenge, searching for the complications and restraints. For example, we ask the sponsor to rephrase their question in three different ways, by when the selected ideas need to be realized, or what has been tried before and why that was not successful. These questions draw out some great dialog and a better understanding of what they do know and do not know – ending in a great campaign topic.
In most cases, this workshop results in the sponsor asking an entirely different question than originally thought. Alternatively, we might discover that their challenge demands multiple (smaller) campaigns to get appropriate quality ideas in answer to their issues. Be bold here and don’t settle. Most times the sponsor fears missing out on ideas by making the question too specific, but it is the innovation manager’s task to convince him/her that it is better to get high-quality proposals in smaller numbers than many ideas of lower quality. Gathering a pile of ideas that you cannot or will not pick up will be counterproductive. Apart from the additional time required to manage all those thoughts, the crowd will see through generic deactivation reasons and feel they wasted their time by participating. Avoid these unwanted effects by starting the campaign with the end in mind.
Stacking your Burger
When all preparations are completed, you can launch your idea generation campaign. Bottom-bun-up, the crowd then creates initial input based on this earlier defined specific request. At this point, in your role as innovation manager, you should guide the innovators on how to share their ideas. Have them think about what things are important to consider to make their initiatives relevant to the company. You can do this by setting specific requirements on the topics that were found to be especially relevant from the campaign definition workshop. Also, use idea submission templates to force ideas to be submitted in the required format (e.g., what is the current problem, what are the operational effects and financial impacts).
Often those initial ideas are mere ‘sparks’ and need to be matured into full-fledged flames. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) need to be tasked, top-bun-down, to provide feedback on the ideas. That feedback then goes back through the layers of the burger allowing the ideas to grow bottom-bun-up again, further harmonizing them with the company goals.
The mature ideas are then to be evaluated by middle management based on top-bun-down guidance. Only the best ideas are perfected in a joint effort between the SMEs and the innovators. Senior management decides on the final selection and assigns the implementation tasks to middle management – involving and recognizing the best innovators from the crowd. See it as a game of pong between the top and bottom bun as represented in the image.
Enjoying your burger
Together the two buns capture and hold all of the greatness; a perfectly flame broiled burger, with some value adding services like onions, pickles and of course melted cheese! Without the top or bottom bun, it would become a total mess (fuzzy maybe?), making this mouthwatering dish extremely challenging to enjoy.
Collaborative innovation is only advantageous if top-down and bottom-up are in working together harmoniously.
To create this harmony, make sure that everyone is on the same page and is involved from beginning to end. You need powerful engagement tactics but still give the crowd sufficient air to collaborate within all levels and mature their ideas. Don’t say “no” too early in the process and don’t force progress. Just like with the hamburger, you should not squeeze the two buns too hard. You will push out all the wonderful juices and might even lose a pickle – and often that is just where you are making the difference!