Should innovation start from the top or from the bottom?

should innovation start from the top or the bottom

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 20. December 2017

The old, classic question: Should innovation be driven top-down or bottom-up?
The old, classic answer: Both.

But why, and how do you do that? What are the roles of both parties?

Top-down innovation

I’ve heard numerous middle managers and frontline employees complain that they do not have time to be innovative, let alone have time to evaluate and “sharpen the saw”, as Stephen Covey phrases it. They send clear signals that the culture of innovation is non-existent.

It’s the role of the top managers to establish this culture.

We need these top managers and key influencers to put innovation on the agenda, to encourage it, to measure it, and to do it themselves. And, most of all, to accept that working with innovation will require people to do something differently than they are used to, and trained for.

This means, that:

  • You must encourage employees to change things
  • You must empower employees to change things
  • You must embrace the fact that things change
  • You must accept failure without punishment
  • You must accept that innovation takes time and resources.

In that sense, the role of the managers is to inspire, encourage, and invite innovative thinking and behaviour.

Bottom-up innovation

Assuming that the culture is there – or is being build – it’s everybody’s task and opportunity to be innovative. As described in the blog post about mapping the innovation spectrum, innovation is a spectrum from everyday improvements to radical pivoting.

It’s the role of the employees to explore improved approaches to the problems we’re solving for the customers.

The innovation culture should encourage you to think in new or improved approaches to your tasks and challenges.

  • You should investigate how we can Run the business
  • You should investigate how we can Grow the business
  • You should investigate how we can Transform the business
should innovation start from the top or the bottom

And actually, the people “in the bottom of the hierarchy” are the ones, who know most about the problems, we’re trying to solve for the customers. This means, that they also are the ones who has the best opportunity to come up with the best guesses on what to try (maybe with a speedboat).

When the both part work together

My clear learning, also from working with customers over the past decade, is that the keys to innovation are:

  1. Culture
  2. Frequency

The more frequently you engage in innovation activities, the higher willingness you’ll get, and the lower entry barrier there is.

It’s simply a matter of making innovation a habit.

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