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This article was originally published by Inside HR

By Zoe Aitken

November 25, 2020

Unless very clear guidelines are communicated to employees about the types of ideas the business is looking for, a bottom-up approach can end up doing more harm than good. Many of the ideas submitted are unviable, unfeasible or misaligned to the business strategy, and therefore don’t ever see the light of day, writes Zoe Aitken

There’s no doubt of the importance of innovation in helping businesses navigate their way out of the COVID-19 storm. Whether experienced innovators or not, most businesses have had to adapt; course correct and quickly seize new opportunities in order to survive. And this is exactly what innovation is all about. Innovation can be defined as ‘change that adds value’. And it will play a significant role well into the future, in getting businesses back to growth.

For innovation to be truly transformative, it requires cultural change. Innovation has to be supported by the right values, behaviours and processes for it to have a meaningful impact. Having a well-defined innovation process is an important first step in building a culture of innovation.

Facilitating a top-down approach to innovation also helps ensure that the bottom-up ideas submitted by employees are strategically aligned. And this has many benefits. Importantly, the innovation process is much more efficient, as employee efforts are only focused on the most important areas.

There are two pathways for an innovation process; bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up innovation is where ideas originate from employees and they identify opportunities through their day-to-day operations. Inspiring bottom up innovation is essential because often, it is the people on the ‘front line’ who identify the biggest opportunities.

Top-down innovation, on the other hand, is driven from senior management and provides focus for innovation efforts. It ensures that resources are dedicated to the areas of most importance to the business.

Both top-down and bottom-up innovation are equally important. Particularly right now, when any resources need to have maximum impact.

Bottom-up innovation is often seen as the easier approach.
It’s critical that a business’s innovation process supports both bottom-up and top-down innovation. Unfortunately, what often happens, is businesses initially take a bottom-up approach to innovation as it’s seen as the easier pathway to facilitate. They might roll out a new innovation platform and encourage employees to submit their ideas. Or perhaps they put out an ‘ideas box’ in the hope that it will help identify the next big, transformational opportunity for their business.

However, what tends to happen with this approach, if done in isolation, is that the ideas submitted end up ranging from having ‘three ply toilet paper’ in the bathrooms to ‘casual Fridays’. The breadth of the ideas submitted is often huge, in terms of both quality as well as their potential business impact. You end up getting lots of ideas that the business has zero inclination or resources to implement. And this is where taking a purely bottom-up approach to innovation often falls down.

Bottom-up innovation alone, risks disengaging employees.
Unless very clear guidelines are communicated to employees about the types of ideas the business is looking for, a bottom-up approach can end up doing more harm than good. Many of the ideas submitted are unviable, unfeasible or misaligned to the business strategy, and therefore don’t ever see the light of day. Employees who submitted the ideas end up feeling disheartened and then disengaged in the innovation process entirely.

The breadth of the ideas submitted is often huge, in terms of both quality as well as their potential business impact. You end up getting lots of ideas that the business has zero inclination or resources to implement. And this is where taking a purely bottom-up approach to innovation often falls down.

Therefore, for an innovation process to drive cultural change, it must also support a top-down approach to innovation. Leaders play a crucial role in determining and communicating the innovation focus areas. And this ensures that the business’s innovation resources are dedicated to the strategic imperatives.

Top-down innovation improves the likelihood of your ideas being implemented.
Facilitating a top-down approach to innovation also helps ensure that the bottom-up ideas submitted by employees are strategically aligned. And this has many benefits. Importantly, the innovation process is much more efficient, as employee efforts are only focused on the most important areas. Secondly, it improves the likelihood of implementation of the ideas submitted. Which in turn, re-engages your employees in the innovation process. And as we all know, any cultural change, requires your employees to come along on the journey with you.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that innovation is optional. While it might be tempting to throw open the ideas box and seek ideas and inspiration from your employees, make sure that this is balanced with clear communication around your innovation focus areas. Because three ply toilet paper just isn’t going to cut it right now.