Debate: Innovation, Bottom-up -or- Innovation, Top-down
Recently I observed a dialog on a Linked In group discussion titled “Innovation, Bottom-up” in which the general consensus was innovation strategies should be pushed from the bottom rather than from top of organizations.
Innovation is multifaceted, as there is no such thing as setting the direction from which ideas come. In part it is great to encourage the generation from the bottom up, but the fact is that if top level management does not create an atmosphere of recognizing or encouraging bottom up innovation the new ideas will not be forthcoming from the base. Sometimes the best ideas come from people totally removed from the process that as simple questions like “what tangible/perceivable benefit does that idea offer the user?”. I recall a situation in which the receptionist at a personal care company told me (then I was a director of R&D) a marketing VP and one of my product designers what was lacking in a type of styling tool for women. When asked what was her idea (she offered a general thought that identified a problem not addressed by existing products) as to what was lacking. The solution and the product created was a result of inputs from many levels of staff from a person totally removed but a user of product that stirred multiple levels of staff to look at the challenge. For this reason I do not buy into or support statements about innovation is driven from the bottom up or driven from the top down. Innovation in many cases is really a fresh look from outside the box that challenges the norm.
The concept that strategies are pushed from the bottom up is not the same as saying innovative ideas can be pushed from the bottom up. Very few team members at the bottom of organization have strategic plan experience, thus the idea that strategies should be pushed from the bottom up is naive at best. It is very realistic that great ideas can be bottom up, but a strategic plan is quite different. This is like saying that a world war II foot soldier in General Patton’s should be setting a strategic plan versus a General trained in the history and art of warfare. Many combat soldiers contribute based on an observation regarding a specific idea, but not a strategy.
Strategic planning of an innovation process generally requires experience, but innovation for ideas can be initiated at any level including those totally removed from the process.