Not long ago, airlines had to burn seven hours of potential flight time on aircraft safety inspections. The problem was that maintenance workers had to snake a camera through the complex innards of a 747 in order to check the integrity of all the crucial parts. It took six hours to weave that lens through the maze of a jet’s anatomy to capture the images they needed. Inspecting those captured images required only an hour.
An airline supplier came up with a better idea. To be more precise, a lowly administrative assistant at the company created an innovation to solve this problem. She had just seen “Minority Report” and remembered how the movie’s robotic spiders hunted down their suspect. She thought maybe her firm could use something like those technological arachnids. She logged into a system for generating and tracking innovative ideas for new products, and submitted her idea. Most of those who saw it laughed. But the Chief Technology Officer liked it. Eventually, he had his people attach a camera to a set of robotic legs and now the same inspections take a little more than an hour. The airlines love it, and this supplier is reaping the rewards.
This is the power of a system that leverages crowd-sourced creativity—ideas from anyone and everyone in the company. Harvard Business Review mentioned this case study about sourcing organizational creativity from the bottom up in a quick but powerful article inspired by the software used in this example: Spigit. It sounds to me as if more companies ought to be using it, or coming up with their own way to activate employee creativity in an organized way.
Companies are beginning to realize that most productive innovations are incremental and rise up from the lower regions of the org chart. But they won’t even surface if you don’t give your people the authority and opportunity to use their imaginations.
It doesn’t sound as if there’s anything magical about this particular system for organizing innovation. The key is simply to give employees a way to log their ideas, have them brought up for consideration, conversation, debate and brainstorming—regardless of whether they are implemented or discarded.
Dylan Minor, of the Kellogg School of Management, gathered and analyzed five years of data on the creativity of 3.5 million employees from 154 public companies using Spigit. Some companies used the technology to generate innovative improvements, others to look for ways to save on costs. (Even without this particular system, any company could solicit, compile and bring new ideas up for consideration in an organized way.) The study found that innovation can be a science and that the key goal is “ideation rate:” the number of new ideas per employee a system generates for consideration. Companies with a higher rate experience faster growth and higher net income.
Four elements lead to an optimal “ideation rate”: a large cross-section of participants rather than a small team of smart people; campaigns that solicit and capture as many ideas as possible; a deep bench of people evaluating, discussing and brainstorming how to act on the ideas; and maybe the most significant finding of all, a sample of ideas drawn from the people most taken for granted: front-line workers, floor-walkers, cashiers, and anyone who interfaces with customers directly or works on production lines. People close to where the rubber meets the road will know what gets traction.
Spigit has some skeleton case studies badly in need of fleshing out on its website, but one example offers persuasive proof: using the system, ATT has invested $44 million in seed money based on ideas the system has generated for global marketing campaigns, new service plans and apps.
Here’s what’s being overlooked in all of this. There’s plenty of talk about how to get more value out of the everyday employee and virtually nothing about how to motivate those employees to come up with ideas and submit them. One thing not covered in any of these accounts is the fact that employees actually need to like their company, and be happy in their work, to relax enough to be in that occasional alpha brain-wave reverie that studies have shown is the origin of nearly all creativity. This study, which is covered briefly in executive summary mode in HBR, ought to be documented in great detail and made available for any organization to use as a guide. But I would submit that the real significance here is how the research confirms what I’ve been saying for over a decade: a company’s entire workforce, and its ability to delight customers through creative solutions, is the only source of success in the 21st century.
This recent study, as well as the success stories at Spigit, show in hard, scientific terms that employees—not technology, or market cap, or whatever magic a CEO brings to the top of the pyramid—are the bedrock of a firm’s future. Success is more of a bottom-up phenomenon than a top-down one. To enjoy that success, you need to reward the average employee through compensation, recognition, and any other means of inspiring a sense of ownership in the company’s mission. Then you can create a rigorous system for organizing creativity and watch as your numbers improve.