An idea stuck in your enterprise isn’t innovation—it’s useless

A good idea stuck in your enterprise is just a clever notion adding little value. As Shakespeare might have put it, it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” No matter how inventive it may seem, if it’s not directly addressing a specific need, and generating remarkable value, it is useless. The world doesn’t need more uselessness.

What good ideas need is social mobility. They need to be transferable, presentable, and accessible. Good ideas need to be backed up with subject-matter expertise. They need to directly address the questions that surround the ecosystem of an idea as it becomes an innovation. Good ideas need to be able to be clear about their gaps and deficiencies so that those people who might provide assistance can readily identify where and how they can provide effective support. Good ideas also need to be clear and cogent, so they can be better positioned by advocates across the organization; positioning the idea to those with the power and the networks to extend the impact of the innovation as it meets users’ needs.

Good ideas live and thrive when the people supporting them know how to navigate organizations: these people are flexible and resilient enough to build a collaborative coalition of partners, regardless of their own egos, who will help carry the idea forward as it grows into a true innovation and finds a useful place in the world. Most enterprises don’t know if they have these people because most don’t know that they need them. In the meantime, the output of the best and brightest might be shelved or trapped in a presentation on someone’s hard drive, never to see the light of day or have a chance of testing themselves in the only arena that matters, the marketplace.

Where have all the smarty-pants gone?
Sometimes it takes an expert to point out the obvious.
Scott Allen
Long the domain of subject-matter experts, invention has offered so much squandered promise. While invention is the end result of a spark of creativity, it’s innovation that takes that invention and brings it to the world in a way that generates value. Having the idea is a big deal, sure, but like parenting, it is not over and done with the moment a child is born. What follows are years of hard work. The inventor, long lauded as a mythic figure, is only valuable when they can get their idea into the hands of someone who can use it. Unless there is a way for an invention to be successfully tested and used to address a compelling need, its intrinsic value is negligible.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the folklore surrounding invention is that of the ivory tower syndrome— the notion that for greatest effect, an individual or a group of experts from a specific field of study should be closeted away to work in glorious isolation, only to be released upon the delivery of an earth-shaking innovation, is ludicrous. Why on earth we would think that an absence of collaboration would produce an optimal result is beyond me. Perhaps it is because some consider that collaboration denotes invention by committee? And we all know what they say about committees, especially when it comes to the value of their output. Consider the character Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the British TV show “Yes, Minister,” when asked what can be done about a particular situation.

…to that end, I recommend that we set up an interdepartmental committee with fairly broad terms of reference so that at the end of the day we’ll be in the position to think through the various implications and arrive at a decision based on long-term considerations rather than rush prematurely into precipitate and possibly ill-conceived action which might well have unforeseen repercussions.

In short, committees are where ideas (good or bad) go to die.

An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until eventually he knows everything about nothing.
Edwin Meese III

The challenge for subject-matter experts is how they can best “wire” themselves into the organization in which they exist. For a technology expert, connecting them to financing and accounting experts may help them see how they might afford prototyping at an earlier development stage, so that they might avoid late stage problems. A service-development expert might benefit from a connection to a marketing expert in order to understand how a client segment or market demographic is evolving over time, thereby increasing the chances of delivering on-target service innovation. The bottom line is that a subject-matter expert needs to supplement the depth of their experience through both access to other adjacent subject-matter expertise, and the generalists required to identify, and advocate for, those people who can best support of the designed solution.

Knowing where to turn is the next major hurdle in getting an idea through a company and out the door.

My kingdom for a broker!
A good friend is a connection to life—a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world.
Lois Wyse

Knowing where to turn for support and guidance is often an issue of great frustration for those who conceive of potential innovations. Often organizational life, with its politics and brinkmanship, offers little comfort for someone who knows they have a great idea in their hands but no clear path to get that idea through the organization and out the door for the best test of its value: customers. Instead, ideas lie abandoned after what may have been grueling and punishing campaigns for their novelty to be seen and heard. The person with the idea is left shell-shocked at the very least, and angry and hurt at best.

Why is it that good ideas die in organizations?

Quite often the good idea is never connected by its originator to the person or people with the resources to breathe life into it, or to those who might be able to assist in its genesis. The reasons are many, but a primary one is that inventors are often marginalized. Their behavior and passion for their subjects sometimes makes them seem out of touch with the rest of the organizational life and purpose around them. This results in isolation and their ideas being discounted.

To survive, ideas must be connected to the whole network of available resources across the enterprise. Rather than seeking to navigate the functional silos that exist in most organizations, valid structures designed to improve reliability and reduce waste in the systematic production of similar products and services, inventors seeking to turn their creations into innovations need different access. They can be better helped by being wired into the social network of the organization. The social network is the structure that supports the way cross-organization value is truly created. What they need are people to connect them to that social structure. Those people are brokers.

Communication–the human connection–is the key to personal and career success.
Paul J. Meyer

A broker in organizational life is someone who understands where the best people are to provide assistance and support, and who is willing to connect people across the organization. They often act as agents on behalf of people’s ideas. Some brokers end up in senior roles in organizations because of their willingness to help others. Many of them find their way into what are considered ancillary or supporting functions within organizations. Human resources, customer support, and marketing are some functional areas that are often home to brokers. The key attributes that make someone an effective broker are seen in the breadth of their organizational “connectedness” and their willingness to make new connections in assistance of others’ passions.

For most brokers in organizations, their motivators and drivers come in creating a robust web of relationships around themselves. They seek to validate their own credibility by building effective relationships between and among others across the enterprise. In seeking to link people who may provide assistance to each other or create value with each other, they see the fruits of their efforts creating a stronger organization.

But a smart idea connected to the correct additional resources may only get you so far. Another key trait is missing that would aid in freeing the idea and helping it become a reality. That role is filled by the advocate.

Salesperson? I’d be happy with a sales monkey
The weapon of the advocate is the sword of the soldier, not the dagger of the assassin.
Alexander Cockburn

Salespeople have a bad rap. When you think of a salesperson, what’s the first image that comes to mind? If it’s a polyester-clad, used-car salesman with a Cheshire Cat grin and an oily comb-over in your mind’s eye, I’m truly sorry. Let’s be perfectly clear: without effective salespeople, organizations die. No sales, no income, no business. Good night. Which doesn’t mean that all salespeople are good and right and useful, either. In fact, the general experience with salespeople out in the world tends to color our perspective on the whole pool. Yet salespeople provide an invaluable service, and not just between our enterprises and our customers. A critical team member in bringing our ideas to market faster is the salesperson, but in an organization, there is often little (save reputation) to accrue or squander. There is no actual transactional sale. Rather than terming them salespeople, let’s consider them advocates.

An advocate is one who believes in something and is willing to speak on its behalf. In the case of ideas stuck inside an organization, one of the few ways to gain support is for an advocate to take the message behind the idea to those people with the funds to support its further development and the power to promote it as an organization-owned initiative. Without an advocate, someone willing to address the perceived deficiencies of an idea in a way that doesn’t cripple its progress, an idea will continue to make little progress towards the marketplace.

The first duty of a wise advocate is to convince his opponents that he understands their arguments, and sympathizes with their just feelings.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The power of an advocate lies in their ability to draw others into the fold, to make them a part of a growing group of enthusiastic supporters if not raving fans. A true advocate knows how to present an idea in the best light possible. They understand that just as important as having a clear message to communicate is also knowing how to communicate that message in a manner tailored to fit the audience in front of them. They recognize that timing is critical and that sometimes receptivity also depends on tenacity, repetition, and resilience.

Where the subject matter expert may be the originator of an idea, it goes nowhere without the benefit and support of some “friends”: the broker who connects that idea to the social network in a manner that can unleash its potential, and the advocate capitalizes on that potential so that the idea can face the only tests that matter — the experiences of potential customers.

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