In medium to large organizations, idea flow is critical to innovation. Every firm has a number of highly creative individuals and many more moderately creative individuals. With optimal idea flow, their good ideas will be recognized and implemented relatively quickly and cost efficiently. With lousy idea flow, those ideas will mostly be lost. The quality of idea flow in most companies, of course, falls somewhere in the middle.
In order to best envision idea flow, it is useful to think about motion in dimensional space.
Zero dimensional idea flow is the worst kind of idea flow. Zero dimensions, as you will recall, is a single point from which there can be no motion. Likewise, in highly hierarchical companies that are not open to receiving ideas from staff, ideas do not go anywhere. If one of the staff has an idea, she might discuss it with her colleagues in a “Wouldn’t it be great if our company were to…” sort of way. But the idea goes no further. Only when a decision maker – usually the CEO – has an idea is it implemented.
One-Dimensional Innovation (1D)
One dimensional idea flow is better. One dimensional space is linear and comprises points along a line. In firms which have begun to respect ideas, idea flow becomes linear. When an employee has an idea, she is invited to share it with someone responsible for ideas, such as her superior or an innovation manager. If the idea seems promising, the innovation manager may discuss it with the originator, send it to an expert for evaluation or send it to her superior for approval. Each of these people can be seen as points on the line of idea flow.
The more easily ideas move back and forth along the line; and the more lines of idea flow there are, the more innovative a company is likely to be.
Surprisingly, a number of companies providing idea management solutions, base their solutions on one dimensional idea flow. This is a pity, because once a company gets locked into a tool that pushes them into one dimensional idea flow, it is hard to expand into two or three dimensions.
Two-Dimensional Innovation (2D)
Two dimension defines a plane or flat surface. Two dimensional idea flow means that ideas flow in all directions across the organization. Anyone can see what ideas other people are proposing, propose their own ideas and collaborate on other people’s ideas.
Likewise, when ideas are implemented, they are done so transparently, for the entire enterprise to monitor.
Two dimensional idea flow is clearly a big step up from one dimensional idea flow. Everyone participates at every level; collaboration builds upon good ideas, turning them into great ideas and transparent communication from management shows support for innovation which encourages further innovation.
Indeed, you may be forgiven for wondering what three dimensional innovation might look like and how it could improve upon two dimensional innovation.
Three-Dimensional Innovation (3D)
Three dimensions define a cube or space as we know it. Three dimensional idea flow goes beyond the firm and brings in your customers, suppliers, consultants and business partners; perhaps even the general public in some instances. These people all have ideas about how an organization can improve their products, services and image.
In particular, products for which customers have strong emotional attachments will certainly attract well thought out ideas from customers.
By bringing everyone from employees to suppliers to customers into the idea flow, an organization is truly maximizing its potential to innovate as well as demonstrating to everyone in the supply, production and distribution chains the value the organization places in innovation.
Of course bringing outsiders into the idea flow is trickier than bringing employees in. For competitive reasons, most companies need to keep information, particularly about innovative new products and services, confidential during the development phase. Moreover, unscrupulous people (such as angry customers or nasty competitors) could attempt to sabotage the idea flow by introducing bad ideas into the system. Hence structures need to be built to allow different levels of idea flow between different parts of the three dimensional space.
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.jpb.com/