How To Get Innovation from the Big Middle

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When Kelly Soyland of the Good Samaritan Society started an innovation project in 2006, his official job title was director of procurement. Along with his daily responsibilities, Soyland took on innovation projects because he saw opportunities that couldn’t be addressed within the Society’s normal operations. After working nights and weekends on these projects, he reached a crossroads. “I was willing to go above and beyond on these projects, but I realized it wasn’t enough,” said Soyland. “I decided to stick my neck out and write a memo to our senior leadership team on the need for innovation within the Society. I wasn’t very complimentary of our capabilities. It was one of those moments when you take a deep breath and wonder if you know what you’re doing or if you just made a really big mistake.”

Today, Soyland has a new title at Good Samaritan: He is the director of research & innovation. In 2011, after five years of off and on innovation efforts, the Society took a bold step to create a formal innovation unit and put Soyland in charge. He is a rare breed – sometimes called an intrapreneur – who exhibits entrepreneurial behaviors within the context of a large organization that implicitly asks employees to stay in their lanes.

To encourage others to take up the cause for innovation, Soyland is tapping into a large pool of mostly untouched potential – the middle managers and frontline staff of the Society. These people may not thrive in ambiguity the way Soyland does – you could say they are more inclined to color within the lines – but they are part of a group that possesses plenty of creativity. Plus, there are literally thousands of them. Many managers and employees think innovation is reserved for their top VPs and a handful of select individuals. The problem is these creative thinkers are in short supply and are already deployed against the organization’s most vexing challenges. Instead of trying to pile more onto their plates (a sure innovation killer), companies must learn how to tap into the innovation capacity of the organization’s middle.

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What’s so appealing about the members in the middle? Let’s count the ways:

  1. They are good at their jobs.
  2. They know a lot about the organization and its customers.
  3. There are many of them.
  4. They have plenty of latent creative capacity.

Why aren’t employees using their creative capacity? Simply put, they have not been asked to contribute, and if they have been, they were not given the resources, time, or tools to use their potential.

As another example, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), a global business solutions company, is currently in its second year of offering a program to tap the innovation potential of middle managers and solution executives. “These people are so very close to the customer problems; all we have to do is support them with some tools and some time to use them,” says Sami Albanna, the director of CSC’s North American Public Sector Solution Leaders Institute. The program is based on action learning – giving the teams autonomy to select real challenges and generate practical solutions while simultaneously learning innovation skills.

“This has been a game-changer for me,” says Jim Hayes, a participant in the CSC program. “You always think about new ways to solve a problem, but before this program there was no place for that idea to go. Now we have (management’s) blessing to try things out on a small scale and an acceptance that it’s okay if it doesn’t work.” And does it work? “More often than not the ideas work, but not the way the team envisioned them,” says Albanna. “That’s the nature of innovation.”

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Innovation depends on the three P’s: Passion, Permission, and Protocols. Intrapreneurs run on Passion, get the little Permission they need from their VP, and, like Soyland, make their way without much in the way of formal innovation Protocols. To tap into the innovation potential of an organization’s middle, you need to flip the formula: lead with Permission and Protocols, and add Passion as the caboose.

So how can managers mine the innovation potential of the middle? Here are the basic steps:

  1. Provide Permission in the form of (a) a request from someone senior and (b) a modest number of resources, including some time to work on an innovation project;
  2. Provide Protocols in the form of a set of practical methods that go beyond traditional, analytic problem-solving procedures;
  3. Create an environment for employees to connect to each other; and
  4. Let their Passion unfold in the form of great little projects.

With a keen eye towards growth and these simple steps in hand, managers can tap into the ocean of innovative potential that lies waiting in the middle of their organizations. That next great, money-making idea may come from where the top management least expects.

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Tim Ogilvie is CEO of innovation strategy consultancy Peer Insight and co-author with Jeanne Liedtka of Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers, published in 2011 by Columbia University Press. Ogilvie’s next book, Conversations for Growth: The 10 Conversations That Ignite Successful Innovation Teams, is due out in 2013.