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Harness your employees’ creativity through innovation communities


Writing for the Wall Street Journal, JC Spender and Bruce Strong attempt to take the mystery out of innovation and its inspirations, insisting that a company's own employees are the main source of innovative ideas.

They explain: "Most great ideas for enhancing corporate growth and profits aren’t discovered in the lab late at night, or in the isolation of the executive suite. They come from the people who daily fight the company’s battles, who serve the customers, explore new markets and fend off the competition. In other words, the employees."

Spender and Strong observe that companies that have made innovation part of their continuing strategy have done so by "harnessing the creative energies and insights of their employees across functions and ranks. One of the ways they have managed this is through what the authors call "innovation communities". These are initiated by senior management looking to investigate possibilities for new products, markets or business processes. A forum of employees is put together to explore the desired areas.

Spender and Strong say: "Innovation communities tackle projects too big, too risky and too expensive to be pursued by individual operating units. They can be created with little additional cost, because no consultants are needed. After all, those in the midst of the fray already know most of the details relevant to the project."


Led by senior management, the community discussions can be a productive "economic engine" for higher profit.

The authors identify seven pointers for creating successful innovation communities:

1) Creating the space to innovate. The authors point out that line managers and employees are usually too occupied with operational issues to have the time to sit around and discuss ideas that lead to cross-organisational innovation. Innovation communities, though, create a space where people from across the organisation can share ideas.

Spender and Strong describe the process: "At first, participants typically meet face to face at a central location, often company headquarters, then shift to virtual meetings for follow-up sessions. The most important thing is blocking out time free of daily responsibilities to devote to discussion and creative thinking.

"Senior management sets the agenda. A clear statement of purpose and themes for discussion are set forth. Participants are free to discuss ideas without concerns about hierarchy and quarterly financial results."


2) Getting a broad variety of viewpoints. The innovation community needs to incorporate people representing different functions, ranks and locations – both for their individual perspectives and to ensure "buy-in" throughout the company. It is important that enthusiasm is created, as well as new products.

3) Creating a conversation with senior management. "To create sustainable cross-organisational innovation, it's important that ideas flow to senior managers," say Spender and Strong. "If they don't, innovations will tend to have limited, local effects that don't benefit the organisation as a whole."

However, they warn that establishing effective strategic conversations is one of the big challenges in setting up innovation communities. Participants should not be inhibited or wary of speaking the truth to people in positions of power. There should be no limits to discussions.

4) Pulling, not pushing, participants to join. Members of the community must be enthusiastic about taking part. You can't force people to reveal their thoughts or to show their imagination. Although cash incentives are ineffective in this case, it might be persuasive to make it clear that joining innovation communities could be helpful for career advancement.

5) Tapping unused talent to keep down product-development costs. One of the economical advantages of the innovation community is that makes use of untapped energy. It also signals that senior management is listening and that employees will benefit from their participation.

Spender and Strong say: "Permanent structures aren’t required, and productivity needn’t suffer. Innovation-community leaders and teams participate for a limited time as they mostly continue to perform their regular roles."


6) Collateral benefits can be as important as the innovations. As well as the development of new products and services, there are other benefits resulting from innovation communities. For example, they promote personal and organisational learning as people come together to exchange ideas.

Spender and Strong point out that "the repeated discussions and problem-solving missions can give rise to valuable social networks that lead to further exchanges of ideas in the future".

Innovation communities also broadcast an organisation's strategic vision throughout the company, and the meetings and team interaction can help junior managers prepare for more responsibility in the future.

7) Measurement is key. "Innovation communities are sustainable only if they can produce demonstrable value," say the authors. The success of an innovation community can be measured by the number of ideas implemented and their results.

Spender and Strong conclude: "As past downturns have shown, the current economic weakness offers new opportunities for those who seize them. Companies with imagination and courage can do more than tread water amid the slump. Tools like innovation communities can help businesses take advantage of the upheaval and rewrite the rules of their industry."

Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees
J C Spender and Bruce Strong
Wall Street Journal