Authored by Darin J. Eich, Ph.D.

If growth is a top priority, innovative thinking skills should be encouraged and developed at all levels of an organization. Sure, there should be a great emphasis on external or open innovation and many of innovative ideas can come from your customers or other subject matter experts. Nonetheless, it is the employees of your company who will connect those ideas and develop their own ideas within your innovation system in order to fill your pipeline on a continuous basis. The first place to open innovation is within your organization. Imagine what kind of culture of innovation your firm could have if every employee contributed to the innovation process at a place where his/her unique strengths aligned with your needs? A variety of employees can contribute to each stage of innovation by:

1. Providing insight to your research on problems and opportunities — the starting points of innovation—by sharing the voice of the customer with you.
2. Helping to clarify opportunities and focus on specific problems identified by the research.
3. Providing ideas through brainstorming sessions, individual submissions, or company wide idea generating events.
4. Helping to analyze and synthesize the massive amounts of idea collected by using specified criteria or their own wisdom.
5. Participating in a live or interactive web event where employees can view the concepts they developed, and then help select which ones reach the innovation pipeline.
6. Helping to communicate and advance the leading concepts by contributing their thinking to make the message a memorable one.

Do your team members know simple activities they can do in each of these stages? From our experiences, we have found that it is simple and even empowering to equip people with these tools and show them how to utilize them by practicing with real-life challenges. Participating in innovation is something we all enjoy doing—often a reason for choosing our career. People want to develop ideas! In our program, we have turned college students into innovators for innovation leader P&G™ in a handful of training sessions. By doing this, we increase the number of tools they have in their “innovation thinking” toolbox, and build the strength of those tools, resulting in more and better ideas!

How is “innovation thinking” happening in your organization? Who is doing the “innovation thinking”? The simple vision of an organizational innovation culture is to engage as many people as possible — from within their organization as well as outside of their organization — in “innovation thinking” about the opportunities and challenges that they face. Innovation — for those that practice it at its best — is not about one guy in a garage working on an invention, but rather a process where multiple people are collaborating to develop and validate ideas. The opportunity from the top of the organization is to open and catalyze this innovation engagement.

If opening up innovation and innovative thinking within your organization is an opportunity, how do you develop it at all levels and places? We have found that the best way to do this is not to read a book or to listen to a lecture, but instead to engage in developing real-world innovation. Facilitate employees — step-by-step, activity-by-activity — while utilizing different innovative thinking tools, to create and develop their own ideas. What if each individual in your organization had their own personal innovation project? What if employees, along with their colleagues, were invested in the development process of small group projects on a regular basis? We bet it would be good for the innovation culture, employee retention and, most importantly, growth!

From our experience training innovators for Fortune 500 projects, we have found that the most prolific innovators exhibit many innovation thinking skills, including:

* Systems Viewing
* Rapid Iterating
* Quantity Making
* Judgment Suspending
* Idea Funneling
* Deconstructing and Constructing
* Building and Extending
* Connection Making
* Outside Insight-ing

If your organization is at a place where employees at all levels are engaging in innovation in many contexts — such as organizational improvement, product development, communications, etc. — then the next opportunity is to engage the people outside of your organization to collaborate with the developed and engaged innovators on the inside. This collaboration can be powerful for enhancing both “innovation thinking” and results at all stages.

Dell is engaging customers in submitting ideas to them at Intuit has created to show lead users the prototypes they are working on. This effort provides validation and encourages feedback for further development.

In sum, to grow, you need to innovate continuously and sustain this innovation so new and better ideas flow through the pipeline. To have better ideas you need to have a higher quality of innovation thinking from more innovation thinkers both inside and outside of your organization. You can develop this capacity through simultaneously teaching and engaging employees and other individuals in your innovation projects. Start by having a common innovation system that a variety of employees know how to use. Also, have a common format for ideas and how they advance down the innovation pipeline. Then, provide a wide variety of employees with opportunities for real challenges to help them contribute to innovation for actual projects.

About the author: Darin Eich, Ph.D. is President of BrainReactions LLC and founder of BrainReactions Innovation Training can help you create a program to teach, facilitate, engage, and guide your team step-by-step through this innovation system and over 30 different interactive activities to help you generate ideas and solve your challenges. Email Dr. Darin Eich at [email protected]