Almost exactly a decade ago, I ran a large-scale "innovation" program. Back then, innovation was a hot topic. Incubators were all the rage, and every management theorist and academic seemed to have a surefire way to make innovation work.
None of the theory seemed very practical, so I went in an entirely different direction: I started at the bottom of the organization with the people who actually did the work, including (or at least inviting) everyone to participate, and built a grassroots network of innovation champions to carry and sustain the message.
Over a period of two years, I got about a 70 percent participation rate from more than 20,000 people, invested about $20 million, generated more than $400 million in operational cost savings and created a nearly $1 billion annualized run rate in new revenues.
So I guess I did something right. Along the way I learned a few interesting things.
Most of the suggestions and ideas from employees were what we came to call "hygiene" issues. Better coffee, cleaner restrooms, more parking spaces--all the little things that irk people at work but that often have no easy form of expression. We could fix most of these quickly and cheaply, so we did, creating a lot of confidence that we were serious about getting ideas from everyone.
About three-quarters of the remaining ideas were about ways to save money. It's clearly easier to save money than make it, at least from the bottom-up view. These savings usually required some investment, and the local organizations generally couldn't get the funding. So we acted as a central banker and let the savings get split between the innovation program and the business units that achieved them. Everyone won, and, once again, the message that participation pays was reinforced.