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Bottom-up Innovation: Insights, Ideas and Innovation

By Langdon Morris

There are six distinct innovation views that typically need to be integrated into one clear perspective in order to come out with the best possible results: three outsider viewpoints and three insider perspectives: Outsider Perspectives – Knowledge Channel Innovation, Peer-to-Peer Innovation, Outside-in Innovation; Insider Perspectives – Technology-Driven Innovation, Bottom-Up Innovation, Top-Down Innovation. This is Part4 of a six-part series examining each of these perspectives.

Where do innovations come from? Ideas. Where do ideas come from? Often ideas come from insights, from those cherished moments of clarity when new experiences, challenges, observations or questions click, and you say to yourself, “Oh, I get it! Eureka! What if we ….?” Although the terms are often used interchangeably, insights, ideas and innovations are different. Clearly defining them clearly helps explain the differences and, thus, work more effectively.

An insight is usually a momentary flash; as you think about it and discuss it with others it gradually transforms into an idea, a proposition for action with a beginning, middle and end. When you set to work to implement the idea it may become an innovation (a product, service or concept) that adds value for the organization and/or customer.

The French chemist Louis Pasteur implied these distinctions in his famous comment – “chance favors the prepared mind.” The prepared mind is acclimated by prior thought, study and curiosity to recognize and seize upon that moment when luck aligns the forces of the universe to unite need and opportunity (Eureka!), as seen through the eyes of an individual ready to connect the previously unconnected dots.

Insights often come about as the result of individual effort; ideas are generally developed, and even sometimes improved, in groups. Innovation is generally an organizational outcome – the sheer complexity of today’s technologies and markets means that many people must be engaged in transforming ideas into marketable products and services.

Today’s organizations depend upon innovations for their survival. Only innovators will survive in the ever-globalizing market. “Innovate or die” is a genuine proposition as well as a worn cliché. Are companies organized to innovate? In fact, it seems that the majority are organized to not innovate.

Idea Creators and Killers

Some years ago Japanese researchers Teruyasu Murakami and Takashi Nishiwaki published “Strategy for Creation,” an obscure but provocative creativity study in which they asserted that only 5 percent of the people in most organizations are “idea creators.” They suggested that a further 10 percent are idea supporters and promoters, and that, appallingly, a full 85 percent fall into the category of “idea killers.”

Are idea killers in companies also idea killers in life? The evidence suggests not. When most of us go shopping, we are most enamored with the newest, coolest, greatest stuff. We love iPods, Razr phones and HDTV; what we love is innovation! The consumer culture and the global economy depend on our love for the consumption of new “stuff.”

Why do so many people who love innovation in “life” so effectively kill innovation at work? If it is not the people, it must be something about the organization. In most cases it is corporate culture, which takes the form of the pressure of hierarchical, command and control organizational models. Or it may be the company’s overwhelming focus on short-term thinking as embodied in the drive for quarterly results, or persistent conflicts between “labor” and “management,” the threat of outsourcing and various other forces that suppress innovative spirit.

While there is agreement that generating ideas from within the organization is a good thing, the hierarchy often suppresses the innovative spirit. It takes specific and concerted efforts to overcome the pervasive force of a bureaucracy.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle of all is the stigma of failure and the punishment that too often accompanies it. In organizations where failure is punished, innovation is inevitably the casualty, for what is the process of innovation but the process of taking risk?As German scientist Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977) said, “research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

None of this is secret, and in fact this perplexing set of circumstances is getting more attention as innovation becomes more important. So what can you do about this situation in your organization? If you are like most, you will work to create enthusiasm for innovation and to implement tools, methods and programs that enable innovative people throughout the organization – everyone – to express their innovative spirits consistently and effectively.

Models of Innovation Culture

Have you ever wondered why Toyota is making such significant progress in gaining global market share? One reason is that the average Toyota employee contributes more than 100 improvement ideas each year. That quickly adds up to millions of ideas. Certainly most of them are incremental ideas; in fact, most of them probably are not even new ideas. But while the actual ideas are important, even more important is the culture in which this spirit is nurtured. Can you imagine GM or Ford, trapped as they are in union-management conflicts, with such a culture?

But what about ideas that fail? Amazon gives a prize to people whose ideas have been well thought out, but which may have failed. The purpose of the award is to encourage people to share their ideas. The nuance here is the key criterion: the person who came up with the idea must have implemented it without asking permission. Not only are ideas important – it is also important to actively do something with them.

Other companies address the need for innovation through highly structured programs that seek to elicit big ideas. Shell invented a process they call GameChanger, through which company employees are invited to submit ideas for the corporate venture process. Targeting large-scale returns, Shell put millions of dollars into GameChanger. The company conducted workshops around the world to help people with insights and ideas turn them into innovations, and then invested in some of these innovations. The ROI was so good that Shell opened up the process to outsiders; you, too, can submit your idea to Shell for consideration in the GameChanger process.


Shell, Amazon and Toyota all fall into the category of “bottom-up innovators,” initiating processes that elicit good and great ideas from people throughout the organization.

About the Author:

Langdon Morris is a partner of InnovationLabs and author or co-author of six books. His most recent work, “Permanent Innovation: The Definitive Guide to the Principles, Strategies, and Methods of Successful Innovators,” is available as a free download at Contact Langdon Morris at lmorris (at) or visit