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In the past several years, I have consulted at some of the largest corporations in the world, working with the C-suite, on innovation and Silicon Valley’s unique cultural mindset. I always begin engagements with a single question to the CEO: What keeps you up at night? Ten times out of ten, we hear one or all of the following: “I don’t know where the next big idea is. How do I know if my employees have dozens of great ideas floating around in their heads, ideas that will help take my company to the next level? How do I get people to commit beyond their daily jobs? How do I best leverage the talents of my workforce?”

In working to answer those questions for clients, I conceived of Improvisational Innovation, a new methodology that explains how to identify, source, data-mine and execute upon new ideas from any employee at anytime.

Improvisational Innovation = Creativity + Accessibility + Execution

Improvisational Innovation helps CEOs figure out how to tap the good ideas floating around in the minds of their employees. And it helps employees figure out what to do when they have a great idea. If there’s a lack of trust or at an organization or if it doesn’t support an innovation culture, does the employee take the risk of sharing the idea with their own manager who might quash it? Will the manager who sees the value in the idea opt to take credit for it himself? Does the organization even offer an incentive to share a good idea?

I’ve mapped out the methodology for handling these challenges in my upcoming book, The Risk Factor: Why Every Organization Needs Big Bets, Bold Characters, and the Occasional Spectacular Failure (St. Martin’s Press, January 06, 2015). But here is a birds-eye view of its five key principles:

1. Democratize the ideation platform so that great ideas can bubble up from anyone at any time. Inventors are currently defined and determined by the industry they are in. In big Pharma, for example, while innovation is market-driven, it is scientists who become the innovators. In software or SaaS (software-as-a-service), it is the CTO and the engineering team. In fashion, it is designers, and so on. In the innovation capital of the world, Silicon Valley, there is an adopted belief that every person is responsible for the success and failure of an organization. If other organizations adopted this same mindset, then it would allow for broader participation in the invention process. The powerful difference in improvisational innovation is that inspiration can come from everyone, in every role, in every corner of the company. However, in order to effectively democratize the ideation process, there has to be a standard of humility when one shares their ideas, and an environment of optimism must exist so that anyone feels encouraged to propel their idea forward.

2. Adopt a formalized process that will enable execution on a specific timeline. The inventor’s idea needs to move from concept to prototype and beyond, with a complete understanding from all involved of what to do and how long it will take. A formalized process allows time for experimentation, additional staff support, financial investment, and accelerated implementation. It also adheres to a specific schedule that everyone is aware of. The process will work best if you adopt a technology “sandbox” component, (SaaS or cloud based) to monitor, gate-keep and foster collaborative experimentation, and apply the appropriate business models.

3. Ensure that the inventor has access to the right people at the right time. A great idea needs an advocate who can strengthen it, shepherd it throughout the organization, get it to the right people at the right time, and be on the hunt for a business unit to potentially fund and prototype it. Additionally, the inventor should network with colleagues outside of the business unit they work in and even be able to work with the business unit where the invention best fits in. For example, if an idea comes from a financial analyst (who is a robotics hobbyist), but the idea is positioned for a robotics system unit, the inventor should have the opportunity to network and do a temporary work detail in that unit so he or she gains a deeper understanding of how that unit operates and how the invention best fits in. This will ensure that all viable ideas on the table are not left unattended.

4. Reward the inventor. If someone has brought you a bold bet that results in significant revenue increase or cost savings, organizational leadership needs to recognize the inventor and his or her team, and reward them. The inventor should receive special recognition, be known for the product they invented, and have equity ownership in the product comparable to what a founder’s equity share would be outside of the corporation.

5. Archive all ideas, good and not so good. Ideas not viable today might just be perfect in the future. Lyn Heward, the former president and chief operating officer of Cirque du Soleil, described how the company warehouses failed or unused show ideas, sometimes finding the perfect use for an idea a decade later. It also catalogs unique talent in every corner of the globe and uses this database as an inspiration for future shows. To continue with its mission to “constantly evoke the imagination, invoke the senses, and provoke the emotions of people around the world,” Cirque du Soleil has developed some of the most advanced processes to continue to enable groundbreaking innovation.

Why Improvisational Innovation?

Often, innovation cannot thrive in the well-developed system of a mature company. Further procedures and mindsets that are vital to the smooth operation in the main-line business of the company often hamper the ability to thrive in a truly innovative sector. This dilemma of growth impacts not only shareholder value creation; it blocks mature companies from retaining the best of their young talent, and denies these companies opportunities that they could otherwise pursue.

Deborah Perry Piscione is a principal and cofounder at Vorto Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based boutique-consulting firm dedicated to helping companies innovate and grow. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Risk Factor (St. Martin’s Press, January 2015), the New York Times bestselling book Secrets of Silicon Valley, and an Internet entrepreneur and board advisor. A former congressional and White House staffer, she spent over a decade as a media commentator on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, PBS, and NPR programs.

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