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5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation

Think small, don't partner with business units and don't treat innovation like an election.

Many organizations, including Union Pacific, use voting techniques to help filter ideas. Intermountain Healthcare, a not-for-profit health system in Utah and Idaho, uses a crowdsourcing platform developed by Intuit called Brainstorm to solicit employee ideas around specific challenges, but instead of tallying up votes to push the best ideas ahead, Intermountain uses the platform to evaluate activity: Which ideas are generating the most discussion? The platform calculates an "activity score" that reflects the passion behind -- rather than the popularity of -- an idea.

4. Think Small.

Dunn puts it bluntly: If someone has a $100 million business idea, they're handing their employer a two-day notice, not the idea. So be realistic. Big, transformational ideas always are welcome, and there needs to be a channel and process for those. Intermountain Health has that. But it also welcomes focused, small-goal-oriented ideas, and it has focused on building a platform to encourage discussion of those ideas and to rapidly prototype them.

One example: Intermountain asked employees for ideas that could save them time with everyday tasks in order to, well, focus on new ideas. One IT pro said that if he were given a day's time, he could figure out a way to cut the time it takes him to do a SQL Server install from four hours to one -- and he does about 70 of those a year. Is it worth a day's time to possibly free up more than 200 hours a year? Sure. Union Pacific's Tennison said most Innovation Station ideas are much smaller and more focused than the one that saved the company $10 million.

5. Don't Cut College Ties In Tight Times.

It's tempting to put the brakes on new college hires when budgets get tight. Union Pacific knows about tight budgets, having weathered a huge slide in freight volume during the recession. But Tennison said internships, college recruiting, training and innovation are the last places he'll cut.

Union Pacific bets big on interns, hiring more than 100 a year. It recruits on a dozen campuses, and even works with professors to try to get UP's problems and experiences into classwork. The company is based in Omaha, Neb., which isn't a magnet for fresh college grads. But Tennison says the rate of acceptance of UP job offers is about 75% among grads who have interned at the company and gotten a taste of the city, compared with about 10% among those who haven't.

Got your own take on conventional innovation wisdom? Please share it with us, and keep the contrarian thinking flowing.

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Tony Kontzer
Tony Kontzer,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/13/2013 | 11:49:22 PM
re: 5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation
Really great examples of counter-instinct innovation initiatives, Chris. The Intermountain example about the server installs is a particularly powerful one. I'm betting a huge percentage of CIOs wouldn't even classify that as innovation--they'd call it something blander like "process improvement" out of some misguided idea that innovation needs to be huge, like a summer action flick.

Tony Kontzer
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Apprentice
5/15/2013 | 3:45:54 PM
re: 5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation
Great point re: "summer action flick", Tony. Innovation, by nature, often produces incremental improvements. At it's core, it's really a process of reducing inputs and/or increasing outputs; that process is not always the most thrilling endeavor (particularly for higher-level execs who aren't living in the day-to-day successes/failures with the tactical innovation team).

In our experience, the challenge/trick to maintaining focus on, and enthusiasm for, innovation is to regularly reiterate "this is the input we're reducing, and the is the output we're increasing." Framing it in this context, with the business need at the forefront, can help teams stay focused on the right end-goals and help skeptical corner offices stay supportive of the project. This regular input-output sanity check can also help mitigate the rampant curiosity that emerges when folks take "fail fast" too far and too literally.
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