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How The Larry Pages Of The World Get Their Big Ideas

Pro tip #1: Play with Lego.

How The Larry Pages Of The World Get Their Big Ideas
[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]

In a February 2014 interview with Dr. Paul Jacobs, the then CEO of the wireless technology company Qualcomm and now its executive chairman, it dawned on me that there were common threads among the world’s leading innovators that no one had yet defined.

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First, it may sound trivial, but I found that most of these guys loved Lego as children and perhaps still do. Larry Page is an adult fan of Lego (or AFOL as the community sometimes refers to itself), and built the housing for the first Google server prototype out of Lego.

Second, leading innovators continue to roll up their sleeves and tinker, building gadgets and prototypes with their buddies, as Jacobs told me.

Third, they admire each other and feel that they give each other license to dream bigger and even further out there. When one thinks about colonizing Mars for example, the others are liberated to push the envelope.

Fourth, they all have a common guiding vision to change the world for the better–making money is a by-product, not the driving force.

Finally, they think of themselves not as CEOs but as chief product or innovation officers and, in doing so, welcome great ideas from anyone at anytime–a methodology I call improvisational innovation.

What Is Improvisational Innovation?

Improvisational innovation can be defined as engaging all the talents of your people, irrespective of job title, education level, pay grade, and so on.

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Like any good improviser, you listen actively, you are open to change, and you develop a feeling for the right moment to act.

Improvisational innovators create a temporary space with no limits or rules to create barriers, and invite participants across the organization to be in the moment, generating anything from incremental to groundbreaking innovations.

In other words:

Creativity + Accessibility + Execution = Improvisational Innovation

Tom Georgens, CEO of data storage and management company NetApp, said to me, “I am thrilled that we had a billion-dollar idea last year, but how do I know if there aren’t 10 other billion-dollar ideas floating around in my employees’ minds that I don’t know about?” Improvisational innovation solves that problem.

From the employee perspective, what does someone do if they have a great idea? Who do they turn to? If an innovative culture is nonexistent or there is a lack of trust, does the employee take the risk of sharing an idea with their own manager, who happens to be in a bad mood that day and squashes the idea? Or does the manager, who sees the value in the idea, opt to take credit for it himself?

While good ideas exist everywhere, most organizations struggle with building a team that can effectively execute them.

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The methodology behind improvisational innovation can work for any organization because it is accessible and a more pragmatic approach to building upon the assets a company currently has–driving smaller incremental steps while also increasing the chances of a major breakthrough. It focuses on accelerating ideas that advance the company and build a culture that is fast and adaptive without interrupting the bottom line.

Because this type of innovation encourages creative pursuits, it just might keep your greatest talent from jumping ship. If an organization can make space for an entrepreneurial type to access the resources and rewards of a big company, chances are the organization will have less of an attrition issue.

Here are five ways to bring improvisational innovation to your company:

1. Democratize The Process So Great Ideas Can Bubble Up From Anyone At Any Time

In Silicon Valley, there is an adopted belief that every person is responsible for the success and failure of an organization. This mind-set invites anyone to participate in the invention process.

Currently innovators are defined and determined by the industry they are in, and therefore it is the industry that denies participation. In big pharmaceutical, for example, while innovation is market driven, scientists are the innovators. In software or SAAS (software as a service), the chief technology officer and the engineering team are the innovators. In fashion, it is the designers.

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 an environment of optimism and humility when individuals share their ideas so that each person feels encouraged to propel their idea forward.

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2. Adopt A Formalized Process And Timeline

The innovator’s idea needs to move from concept to prototype and beyond with everyone thoroughly understanding what needs to be done and how long it will take. A formalized process allows time for experimentation, additional staff support, financial investment, and accelerated implementation, and it adheres to a specific schedule that everyone is aware of.

3. Ensure The Inventor Has Access To The Right People At The Right Time

A great idea needs an advocate who can strengthen an idea, shepherd it through the organization, get it to the right people at the right time, and be on the hunt for a group to potentially fund and prototype it. Additionally, the inventor should network with colleagues outside of the group they work in and even be detailed over to 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, a new revenue stream or cost savings, leadership needs to recognize the inventor and his or her team and reward them financially and otherwise. The inventor should receive special recognition, be known for the product invented, and have equity ownership in the product.

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, keeps a record of how the company warehouses failed, or unused show ideas, and sometimes she finds the perfect use for an idea a decade later.

The company 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.

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This article is adaptated from Risk Factor by Deborah Perry Piscione. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Deborah Perry Piscione is a principal and cofounder at Vorto Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based boutique consulting firm dedicated to enabling companies to innovate and grow. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book Secrets of Silicon Valley, and an Internet entrepreneur, board adviser and nationally recognized speaker.

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