Removing the Barriers to Employee-driven Innovation

A guide that anyone with a creative idea can use to remove the barriers to employee-driven innovation and change the world without quitting their job.

July 15,2021 Future of Work

The Real Innovators Among Us



Why is it that large organizations are associated with ideas of bureaucracy and stagnancy? The words “innovation” and “creativity” conjure up images of entrepreneurs and start-ups in Silicon Valley garages, not long-lasting organizations that are well-established in their industries.

For more than fifteen years, Outthinker has conducted thousands of workshops and seminars across a wide spectrum of organizations and industries, helping managers generate breakthrough business ideas to drive growth. Almost always, those workshops have produced terrific ideas that left participants feeling eager to proceed. 

However, their organizations rarely acted on these ideas.

It appeared that getting an innovative idea through the bureaucracy of an established company was hard work and carried a low success rate. It seemed that large organizations, even when well intentioned, simply set up barriers to innovation that kill off radical ideas.

One company proved that theory wrong.

A. Swoon (Fierce) Reads Disrupts Publishing

Employee-driven Innovation

In 2016, National Public Radio reported that a leading publishing company was using a new approach to engage inspiring writers.

Jean Feiwel, the editor behind successful series like Goosebumps and The Baby-sitters Club, and employee at Macmillan Publishers, had attended an Outthinker workshop. She had proposed an idea she called “Romance 2.0.” It eventually evolved into the initiative known as Swoon Reads—now Fierce Reads, today’s leading crowd-sourced platform to help undiscovered romance and young adult writers refine their manuscripts and find their audience. It is an uncommon example of an established publishing company introducing the kind of innovation that is usually expected from Silicon Valley. 

The Swoon Reads story uprooted what is typically believed to be true about employee-led innovation. Its path from idea to realization involves none of the formal structures espoused by innovation experts. Instead, the journey was spontaneous, organic, self-directed, and, for much of its path, done without funding or extra time. It was a movement generated by internal entrepreneurs who saw a possibility and worked collectively to realize it.

To find out if the process could be replicated, Outthinker interviewed over 150 internal entrepreneurs, looking for a way to ensure that more of the creative ideas from workshops would find their way into the real world. What was discovered instead was far more meaningful.

Research on the dynamics of strategy and innovation has proven that: 

  • This path of employee-generated innovation has historically been far more prevalent than is typically understood. Innovative ideas from employees have done more to shape society than those of entrepreneurs. 
  • With remarkable consistency, when asked what they saw as barriers to creativity and innovation, the 150 innovators named the same seven key problems.
  • A set of emerging concepts precisely address these seven barriers, opening up a pathway for internal innovators.
  • Far more is known about what it takes to unleash the potential of would-be internal innovators.

These findings can be condensed into a framework that anyone with a creative idea can use, no matter their industry, skills, or place in the company hierarchy. These guidelines are primarily for the internal innovator, not the boss. These passionate innovators will indeed change the world.

B. Internal Entrepreneurship

Employee-driven Innovation

The story is popular…

A super-smart kid comes up with a big idea, quits college, and moves to the west coast where he sets up a small team in a garage to build a breakthrough innovation, then launches a company that disrupts their market and makes them rich.

Here’s another version…

A super-smart employee, maybe no longer a kid, comes up with a great idea related to the company’s core business, but nobody in senior management wants to listen. She quits and starts a new company, builds it into a huge success, and sells it to her former employer’s competitor. 

The entrepreneurial narrative is moving. It speaks to the power of human will, fresh thinking, freedom, and self-realization—all while also promising wealth. 

There’s just one problem with this story. It isn’t true.

1. The True Path of Innovation

The True Path of Innovation

In 2009, the PBS news program, Nightly Business Report, partnered with Wharton Business School to answer the question: which thirty innovations have changed life most dramatically during the past thirty years? They asked viewers across the country, as well as readers of Wharton’s digital magazine from around the world, to suggest innovations in businesses that have shaped the world in the last three decades. A panel of experts reviewed and selected the top 30 innovations:

Open-source software

Large-scale wind turbines

Bio fuels


Noninvasive laser/robotic surgery [laparoscopy]

Social networking via the internet

Genetically modified plants

Radio frequency ID technology and application

Internet, broadband, WWW


Media file compression [jpg, mpg, mp3]


Antiretroviral treatment for AIDS

DNA testing and sequencing/human genome mapping

Magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]

Photovoltaic solar energy

Graphic User Interface [GUI]

Bar codes and scanners


SRAM flash memory

Liquid Crystal Display [LCD]

PC/laptop computers

Fiber optics

Digital photography/videography

Mobile phones


Office software [spreadsheets, word processors]

Light Emitting Diodes [LED]

GPS systems


According to the hero narrative, the entrepreneur conceives of the idea, develops it on their own or with a small team, and then launches a company to commercialize the idea. But, here are the facts:

Question: Who conceives of transformational ideas? 

Answer: Employees.

Only eight of the thirty innovations were conceived by entrepreneurs; twenty-two were conceived by employees.

Question: Who develops the idea? 

Answer: Corporate and institutional collaboration.  

The entrepreneurial hero story has the entrepreneur working alone or with a small team to develop the idea. Actually, only seven of the thirty were developed this way. Most innovations come to life when a larger community forms around the idea to develop it.

Who commercialized the idea? 

Answer: Competitors.

Only two of the thirty innovations were scaled by the original creators. Rather, more than 50 percent of the time, the innovator loses control of the innovation. Competitors take over. Then, through a battle of players seeking to commercialize it, the innovation scales. New ventures don’t scale innovations, competitors do. 

The entrepreneurial hero narrative is more myth than reality. Much of the modern world is owed to the efforts of internal innovators. To tell the true story of innovation, one would have to say that employees conceive of innovations, communities composed of corporations and institutions build them, and then the competition takes over to scale them.

Employee-driven Innovation

C. Advantages of Intrapreneurship

Advantages of Intrapreneurship

Start-ups are young, disruptive, and risk-taking. But, once they find a business model that works, they start repeating that model in order to scale up. To do this, they become the bureaucracy they once scorned. They become risk-averse, tightly monitor performance, and their level of innovation droops.

On the other hand, as internal innovators grow, four factors come into play that gives them a great advantage:

1. They have a scale that entrepreneurs cannot match easily. 

2. They can access multiple capabilities under one roof, tapping technology and experts from across the organization. 

3. They can take advantage of resources that their company has to invest. Entrepreneurs must fundraise continually.
They can diversify risk. By making multiple bets, they have the ability to make returns from innovation predictable.

Six Attributes of Internal Innovators, and Seven Barriers

Traditional entrepreneurs are distinguished by three critical attributes:

  • Innovativeness: the practice of exploring novel approaches, rather than accepted ways of doing things 
  • Market and competitive awareness: awareness of the external environment combined with a drive to help the company win
  • Proactivity: a propensity to act before one is told to act

Employee-driven Innovation

Research shows that internal innovators share those three qualities. But, the same body of research shows they also exhibit three other characteristics that make them uniquely qualified to take on the challenge. 

1.Calculated Risk: On average, entrepreneurs have higher risk tolerance. But, internal innovators think differently. They appear to take high-risk gambles, but actually, they are very deliberate about when and how to do so. They excel at calculating risk, then making thoughtful bets.

2. Political Acumen: While entrepreneurs can shop their ideas to multiple investors before getting funding, internal innovators have only one option—their employer. Winning support depends on navigating a complex network of internal stakeholders.

3. Intrinsic Motivation: All great internal innovators are passionate. They proactively pursue their idea in spite of countless barriers to innovation. They tend to serve a higher purpose, perhaps even greater than their CEO.

Intrinsic Motivation:

The list below reflects the most common barriers and their solutions.
1.Intent: Facing early obstacles, many would-be internal innovators abandon their intent. They eventually give up looking for chances to innovate. Successful ones keep their intention alive and are more likely to spot innovation opportunities.

2. Need: Most employees do not understand the innovations that their organizations need. Even if they are inspired to look for new ideas, they look in the wrong places and propose ideas of little strategic value. Successful ones take the time to learn market forces affecting their company, understand what their organization cares about, and sense unmet customer needs. 

3. Options: Would-be internal innovators often grow frustrated because they become fixated too early on a few innovative ideas—or worse, just one. It’s much more strategic to continually generate new ideas and manage them like a portfolio of options. 

4. Value blockers: Innovative ideas often conflict with a company’s current business model. Successful innovators find ways to engineer their ideas, so that rather than conflicting, they enhance the company’s standing.

5. Act: Established organizations often ask employees to prove that an idea will work before giving permission to take action. This puts would-be internal innovators in a Catch-22: They can’t take action, so they can’t prove that their idea will work, so they can’t take action. Yet, most new ideas are better suited to the opposite approach—taking action in order to prove the idea—and successful innovators devise ways to do just that.

6. Team: Corporations hamper internal innovation through their structure: They use siloed hierarchies, act slowly, and value results over learning. Successful innovators recognize that pursuing new ideas often requires the opposite, and so they pull together a cross-silo team that runs at a rapid pace and is geared toward learning rather than delivering results.

7. Environment: Getting support for new ideas is politically complicated because the leadership behavior, types of talent, structures, and cultural norms that help established organizations operate tend to hinder creativity. Successful internal innovators find “islands of freedom” from which they can access the talent, structures, cultural norms, and leadership that support innovation.

Intent: Choosing to See and Seize Opportunities

The path to innovation begins when someone sees an opportunity and takes action on it. Finding opportunities is not hard. The difficulty is that most people fail to recognize what opportunities to pursue or else choose not to act on them. There could be any number of reasons for this, but the most common one is this: they never take the first step. The first necessity is “Intent.”

Intent: Choosing to See and Seize Opportunities

a. Three Blockers of Intention

Research shows that when a person misses an opportunity or holds back from taking action, they were probably stopped because their internal dialogue was having one of three conversations: it won’t work, it can’t be done, or it’s not socially acceptable.

b. Five ways to overcome blockers

  • Step 1: Diagnose

Identify what is preventing action. Think about what you were telling yourself when you decided to pass. Which of the following sets of statements sound closest to your internal dialogue?

Behavioural beliefs (“This won’t work”)

  • You just can’t innovate in the company
  • We are too stuck in our ways
  • We move too slowly

Control beliefs (“I am not capable”)

  • I don’t have what it takes
  • I’m not an entrepreneur
  • I don’t know enough

Normative beliefs (“People won’t approve”)

  • What would people say?
  • My colleagues or friends would laugh
  • This could hurt my career

Normative beliefs

  • Step 2: Choose your beliefs

Be willing to consider that the belief(s) identified in Step 1 above may not be true. Can you find any examples of someone proving that this belief is untrue? Rarely do our beliefs hold true 100 percent of the time.

  • Step 3: Feel the cost

Dr. Amanda Foo-Ryland, a performance coach based in Portugal and New Zealand, has coached executives throughout the world on dismantling unhelpful beliefs. She created a process that enables clients to start deconstructing beliefs. It not only clarifies the limiting belief, but it also demolishes the destructive thought pattern. Try it for forty-eight hours and you will notice your behavior and outcomes will change for the better.

1. Every time you have thought about taking innovative action, ask yourself, “What is it I believe about myself that causes me to think that way?” Write it down. 

2. Every time you feel bad, ask yourself, “What do I believe about myself that causes me to feel that way?” Make note of this. 

 3. Each time you do either one, move yourself away from where you were sitting or standing and ask the question again. This time, ask it in a playful way as if you have caught the limiting belief by surprise.

4. At the end of forty-eight hours, look at your list and ask yourself two questions about each belief: 

  • What has been the cost of having this belief?
  • What will be the cost of living in this belief for the next five years?

Think about the “cost” of your time and energy, and put a real dollar value on it. Think also about the emotional costs—on your relationships, on your sense of fulfilment, on your career, on your capacity to have an impact on the world. 

  • Step 4: Assess the payoff

A fair assessment of a belief involves payoff as well as costs. Ask yourself: “What is the benefit to me of holding on to this belief?” Does it reduce your risk? Does it help you avoid embarrassment? 

  • Step 5: Choose a new belief

Finally, think of a replacement belief—not necessarily a directly opposite belief. If your belief is, “I don’t have what it takes,” then don’t pick, “I do have what it takes.” Consider, “I have fun innovating” or “I am a passionate person.” How would your life be in five to ten years if you lived this new belief?

Once you have chosen a belief that leads you to the future you want, you will find that the old belief starts fading and the new one starts taking hold. You will start exploring the world with the intention to innovate and impact what you care about

Need: Knowing Where to Look

Need: Knowing Where to Look

Spotting a market need is not enough. That need must also match the business strategy or else the organization is not likely to support pursuing it. Intrapreneurs must understand their company’s business strategy and what the company recognizes that it needs, so they can focus their search for innovation more strategically.

The Strategy Pyramid

Many companies conceive of their strategy as a pyramid. At the top are elements of the strategy that rarely change. At the bottom are the elements that must adjust often in order to deal with changes in the market. Taking the time to understand the company’s strategic planning pyramid is time well spent.

1. Purpose or mission: At the very top of the pyramid, every well-run organization holds some overarching purpose. It defines the organization’s strategic planning.
Long-term Strategic Intent: A purpose is something the company pursues every day, yet may never attain. By contrast, strategic intent is a vision of something, usually an outcome or a state that it will one day realize, even if it takes a long time.

3. Trends: Identifying a few particularly relevant trends removes the clutter. Smart organizations can then merge those trends to paint a view of the future state in which they must compete.

4. Near-term Strategic Goals: A near-term strategic intent describes the steps the organization is undertaking now. It answers the question, “Where must we be in the near term to know we are on the path to achieving the long-term?”

5. Strategic Priorities: The next layer in the strategic pyramid may be the most important: the organization’s strategic priorities. These are simple themes that clarify what the organization is focusing on for the next one to three years.

6. Alignment Priorities: In order to implement its strategy, an organization is always undertaking several alignment initiatives to operationalize corporate strategy (KPIs, resources, policies, leadership, talent, skills, culture, etc.) These initiatives often go overlooked or underappreciated. Intrapreneurs who understand them and look for innovations that will advance them have a chance to stand out.

Need: Knowing Where to Look

Options: How to Generate Disruptive Ideas

A strategy that merely identifies a need is not a complete strategy. It must also include options for meeting the need. Over the past fifteen years, Outthinker has developed a process to help with meeting this need. People generate a large volume of disruptive ideas. Understanding how to do this helps to consider that a strategy is a conclusion to a conversation. These conclusions determine the actions to take and the possibilities to pursue.

Strategic conversations have patterns. Some lead to uninspired ideas, some lead to exciting breakthroughs. If internal entrepreneurs facilitate those conversations well, then chances increase that they will lead to breakthrough ideas. Any strategic discussion is composed of up to five kinds of conversations:

  • Discussing what future you want (Imagine)
  • Assessing what issues to address (Dissect)
  • Brainstorming what options are available (Expand)
  • Deciding which options to pursue (Analyze)
  • Exploring how to get buy-in for the disruptive ideas (Sell)

Imagine… Dissect… Expand… Analyze… Sell spells “IDEAS.”

Learn more in this Complete Guide on Continuous Innovation

Options: How to Generate Disruptive Ideas


When thinking differently about a problem or an opportunity, it helps to start by defining an “impossible” goal. This should be a goal that is unattainable by the solutions already in hand. 

An effective way to set an impossible goal is to work backwards from the future. Step your team into the distant future, imagine an ideal outcome, then work backwards to define what would have to be true in the near term in order to put you on the path to achieving your ideas. Use the following steps:

1.The mess. Step ten years into the future and image the undesirable but realistic future that would occur if you continued on your current path.

2. Long-term trends. Think about new technologies, socio-demographic shifts, macro-economic trends, and regulation ten years from now that will impact the future in which you will be operating.

3. Long-term ideal. Envision your ideal outcome ten years from now. What do you want to be true?

4. Near-term ideal. Ask yourself, in 18 to 36 months, what must be true for us to know that we are on the path to realizing our long-term ideal? 

5. Strategic question. Convert your near-term ideal into a strategic question to activate curiosity.

B. Dissect

Once you have defined a seemingly impossible strategic question, you will naturally start looking for answers. The tendency will be to look in the obvious places. But, to increase your chances of generating disruptive ideas no one has thought of before, it helps to look where no one has looked before. Before you fix on solutions, first, dissect the problem into parts. Assess which parts most people are working on, then focus on the overlooked leverage points.

Options: How to Generate Disruptive Ideas

C. Expand

For the past two decades, Outthinker has been studying the process by which humans generate creative ideas. Humans don’t generate disruptive ideas by chance or through logic, but rather, by applying patterns or “strategic narratives.” If you take a “need” and apply multiple patterns to it, you will inevitably start seeing uncommon solutions. 

inevitably start seeing uncommon solutions

1. Make a small-scale advance.

Rather than dreaming up a large-scale innovation, identify a small pain-point that customers experience. What pain-point can you turn into an innovation?

2. Turn an internal capability into a business.

Andy Jassy convinced Amazon to turn its internal capability at managing technology into a service managing technology for other retailers, and eventually, for any kind of company. The resulting Amazon Web Services offering grew into a $17 billion business. What internal capability can you turn into a business?

3. Do good.

Working to solve social problems is a source of inspiration for many internal innovations. How can you innovate by doing good in the world?

4. Find an unorthodox path.

Organizations often get so used to delivering value through one way that they overlook opportunities to deliver it through different ways. What is the obvious path we have come to accept? What new unexpected path have we not considered?

5. Apply an abandoned innovation.

Your organization has a junkyard filled with failed innovations. You can pick innovations out of the trash and apply them in new ways. What has been abandoned that you could repurpose?

6. Coordinate the uncoordinated.

The growth of models like AirBNB and Uber point to the notion that companies can now coordinate things that before, they needed to own. Hotels no longer need to own rooms to rent them out. Taxi companies don’t need to own cars in order to offer rides. What is uncoordinated that you would like to coordinate?

7. Serve “super-users.”

Businesses often focus on customer segments that represent the largest portion of their market. But, on the periphery there are “super-users” who are trying to use your product or service in new ways, pushing the limits of your offering. Look at what those users are asking for and you’ll find clues to what you might offer next. What are your “super-users” asking for? What are their pain-points?

7. Serve “super-users

D. Analyze

Finally, prioritize your ideas. You may find that you want to ignore the ones that are the most innovative because they are departures from the past. They will be inconsistent with prevailing dogma and practices. They are easy to discount. But, you can avoid this through a three-step process.

1. Sort your ideas on a 2X2 matrix—easy or difficult, high or low.

For each idea, assess whether it is easy or difficult to implement. Then, ask what its impact potential would be if you successfully implemented it. Would it have a high or a low impact? 

This gives you four groupings:

  • Difficult, low-impact ideas are “wastes of time.” Get rid of them. 
  • Easy, low-impact ideas are “tactics.” Put them on a to-do list, then implement them when you have the time. 
  • Easy, high-impact ideas are “winning moves.” These are the ideas one would think you should focus on. But, we have found that the truly breakthrough ideas tend to fall into the fourth category.
  • Difficult, high-impact ideas, which are “crazy ideas.” They appear to be impossible, but if you could figure them out, they would have a major impact. Your breakthrough ideas are likely to reside here. 

Difficult, high-impact ideas

2. Break down some “crazy” ideas.

Force yourself and your team to sit with a seemingly impossible idea for ten minutes. 

  • List out three barriers that make the idea look crazy.
  • For each barrier, brainstorm three ways to remove it.
  • Then, sit back and ask, “Does this idea still look crazy?” You will often find that what first appeared to be a crazy idea actually is worth exploring further.

3. Document your idea portfolio.

Select five innovative ideas that you are committed to testing. Circle, highlight, or write them down in a notebook. Keep your full set of ideas on hand. It can become a useful backlog of innovations. Maintain a list of ideas you are working on, a list you have implemented, and a list of those you have ruled out. When you implement or rule one out, pull another innovation idea and start activating it.

Document your idea portfolio

Options: Value Blockers: Preempting “Corporate Antibodies”



For your innovation to move through your organization, it has to deliver value. That value may be obvious to you and the colleagues helping you, and it may even be clear to your company’s leaders. But, your organization has a web of procedures that flow from its current business model. These are often what has frustrated internal innovators called “corporate antibodies.” They will block the value you are trying to deliver. If you fail to anticipate and neutralize them, then you will fail to realize your ideas’ potential. Many innovations flop simply because innovators skip the critical step of anticipating what could go wrong.

You must identify each potential area of conflict and then decide how to deal with it. All of this is reflected in the business model you design for your idea. The key is to closely examine eight elements of your model, and design them in a way that users will love, competitors will resist copying, and your organization will accept.

Options: Value Blockers: Preempting “Corporate Antibodies Employee-driven Innovation

a. Eight Dimensions to Untangle Your Business Model

Analyze your business model across these eight dimensions, anticipating where problems might arise and seeking clever opportunities to disrupt your competition without disrupting your business. You will find numerous schools of thought on what constitutes a business model. Outthinker has found considerable success by using a framework we call the “Eight P’s.”

Eight Dimensions to Untangle Your Business Model Employee-driven Innovation

1.Position: Who your core customer is (and is not) and what position your brand holds in their mind.

  • Can you pick a core customer that your company already serves? 
  • What associations do customers have about your company, products, and brand(s), and how could you use these to secure a powerful positioning for your idea?

2. Product/Service: What you sell, including your core product/service and all ancillary products/services.

  • What is our full set of products/services?
  • What attributes do our core customers care most about?
  • Which attributes should we accept, bend, or change?

3. Promotion: How you communicate to your core customer, including marketing, sales, public relations, and corporate communications.

  • Have you built the level of collaboration and support you need from your marketing department?
  • Are you addressing the sales force barriers you are likely to face (coverage and capacity, tools, culture)?

4. Placement: How you deliver your product/service (e.g., channels, store locations, distribution methods)?

  • Thinking through your current distribution model, where might issues emerge?
  • Should you accept the current model, create an entirely new one, or separate your product into parts?

5. Pricing: How you price your product/service. Entrepreneurs can create any pricing structure they think that the market will likely adopt. Internal innovators must set a pricing structure from within an established organization. It is tempting to think of this as a limitation, but size can equally become an advantage. The scale and assets your organization wields allow intrapreneurs to shift more easily into diverse pricing structures.

  • What is the current way of pricing your product/service?
  • What options do you see for changing the way you price your product/service?

6. Process: The internal processes that allow you to deliver on your value proposition. If you decide that you just want to better navigate the operational processes rather than change them, then you have a greater chance of prevailing.

  • What, if any, process issues will arise?
  • Is there an opportunity to create a “strategically disruptive” situation?

7. Physical experience: The physical experience you create for your customer, including what they see, smell, hear, taste, and feel when interacting with your company and brand.

  • In terms of the physical experience your customers undergo as they interact with your company, brand, or product/service, what issues might your innovation face? 
  • How does this experience match with the physical experience that your organization currently creates?

8. People: Who you hire, how you organize them, and your culture.

  • Where might conflicts arise? 
  • Where can you create a “strategically disruptive” situation?

Who you hire, how you organize them, and your culture Employee-driven Innovation

Read more about why companies must learn to edit their business models:

Act: Getting Permission to Experiment


Unfortunately, most organizations expect the person with an idea to identify all areas of concern and solve them before giving permission to act. To proceed with a new idea, most innovators are told to “prove it.” This business-planning approach is so deeply ingrained that it has become automatic.

If a new idea requires experimentation to prove it will work and if the system demands proof before the innovator is allowed to experiment, then there are only two options for shattering this Catch-22. Either the system must change or the innovator must disobey the system. Historically, innovators chose the latter, opting to operate in stealth mode (

The future of work will be about enabling employees to act:

a. Learn by Doing

Fortunately, this dilemma—disobey the company’s rules or do battle with the bureaucracy—has begun to change. In the last five to ten years, forward-looking organizations have been realizing that the prove-it / do-it approach is not logical because when an idea is novel, data that would prove its viability does not exist. In fast-paced environments, the cost of taking time out to do analysis can be significant. 

A new approach is taking hold. It is known by various names: lean, agile, scrum, and more, but the essence is the same: take action on a small experiment, learn, and improve your idea.

b. The Emergence of the Agile Methodology

What is the agile methodology? First, it is worth noting that this way of thinking is not a novel concept; it has roots that are decades-long. Think of it as a confluence of three ideas: cycles of adaptation (instead of linear progression), human-centred design (instead of technology-centred), and agile software development (instead of “waterfalls”).

Second, it is not just for technology or new products. You can use it to approach any organizational or strategic effort—a new pricing structure, hiring approach, or marketing message, to name just a few.

Third, it is not just for startups. A growing number of large companies are recognizing that the agile methodology is a superior approach to designing strategy, especially in a faster-paced, more uncertain world that rewards speed and experimentation.

Fourth, you do not need an official blessing to begin applying the agile methodology. Even if you do not have formal approval to work on developing a new idea, you can start experimenting.

Outthinker researched several agile approaches from leading experts and mapped them against the paths that successful internal innovators had described. There were remarkable similarities, which have been synthesized into a six-step model that will help you find your solutions  quicker and at a lower cost:

1. Describe potential solutions.

2. Design a test.

3. Build.

4. Observe and gather data.

5. Draw conclusions.

6. Pivot or evolve.

These six steps outline one experiment cycle. Each cycle offers something new to learn. Maybe, only one cycle is necessary. But, more than likely, an internal innovation will need more.

internal innovation - Employee-driven Innovation

Building an Agile Team


Outthinker research has pinpointed seven steps to building an effective agile development team:

1.Remove organizational friction: Walk through the sources of organization friction (resources, rewards/expectations, risk-taking, senior leadership support, and organizational freedom) and identify how you can address each one.

2.Assemble a cross-functional team: Pull together five to ten people with the right mix of functional backgrounds, who are learners (high educational level) and unrestrained by accepted dogmas (low tenure).

3.Align around an important goal: Align the team behind a compelling, shared vision, with an understanding of what qualifies as winning and what obstacles you will face.

4.Use metrics and data to track the most important thing(s).

5.Build a scoreboard everyone can see.

6.Establish a rapid rhythm: Agree on the frequency with which you will review your team’s progress and set an agenda for that meeting.

7.Generate positive velocity: Celebrate early wins, and allow people to strive beyond what is easy by allowing for failure.

Learn more about agile methodology:

Environment: Finding Islands of Freedom

When entrepreneurs launch a new product in the market and customers first reject it, they don’t blame the customers. They rethink their marketing strategy to target early adopters and advocates who will give the innovation a chance. Similarly, getting an innovation idea adopted within an organization demands finding spaces that are open to new ideas. You must find “islands of freedom” where you and your team can advance the innovation.

Environment: Finding Islands of Freedom - Employee-driven Innovation

Outthinker has found that the following four steps can reveal key insights for creating your island of freedom:

1.Brainstorm your key stakeholders. Identify important internal and external stakeholders across six types: 

a. Early adopters (likely to be responsive to your innovation)

b. Advocates (people with political power who will promote the idea)

c. Indifferent fence-sitters (stakeholders who are open, but too busy to fully understand the idea)

d. Cautious fence-sitters (stakeholders for whom your innovation doesn’t quite fit, but they aren’t sure why)

e. Positive skeptics (stakeholders with reasons to be concerned about the impact your innovation will have on the market)

f. Negative sceptics (stakeholders who are worried your idea may hurt their department)

2.Distinguish high power from low power. Group your stakeholders of each type into high-power or low-power.

3.Strategize. Explore how you can move low-power early adopters and advocates into higher power ones by, for example, placing your innovation within their hierarchy of control. Explore how to shift high-power detractors (positive and negative) into lower power positions by, for example, avoiding their hierarchy of control.

4.Define your contact strategy. Decide who you will contact first. For example, identify specific positive detractors and meet them in order to gather their concerns; create a shortlist of high-power advocates to win their support 

Leadership: How to Unleash Internal Innovation

For innovation to become systemic, leaders need to take the initiative. This can be done by prioritizing innovation, cultivating the right talent, establishing supportive structures, and shaping culture. 

a. Cultivate innovative talent

Leadership: How to Unleash Internal Innovation - Employee-driven Innovation

Organizations don’t need entrepreneurs. They need to cultivate internal innovators with six vital attributes: innovative thinking, being attuned to the customer and market, being proactive, taking calculated risks, having strong political acumen, and being intrinsically motivated to innovate.

Several innovative outperformers create events to activate creative behavior, giving employees pockets of freedom to innovate. This has the dual benefit of releasing employees from the burden of bureaucracy and creating opportunities for them to exercise their innovative muscles.

Another tool adopted by many innovative outperformers to encourage intrinsic motivation is to abandon performance reviews tied to specific key performance indicators (KPIs). This steers employees away from hitting narrow targets.

b. Establish supportive structures

Leadership and talent cannot systematize innovation alone. To do so requires supportive organizational structures.

1. Innovation resources

Most innovative companies implement the common practices of giving employees free time to work on special growth projects or organize competitions in which the winners receive time and investment to pursue their ideas.

2. Rewards

Rewarding employees to innovate can come in many forms. The most common include innovation competitions linked with financial awards. Another dynamic we see in multiple innovative outperformers is to spur internal competition.

Establish supportive structures - Employee-driven Innovation

3. Risk

A leader’s willingness to accept risk-taking and failure was cited by nearly all of the internal innovators interviewed as being key to unlocking employee innovations. Plenty of research shows that an owner’s tolerance for failure and risk-taking correlates with a firm’s innovativeness.

4. Organizational freedom

To ensure greater organizational freedom, many innovative outperformers seek to break large hierarchical units into smaller teams. Many organizations form small, fast-moving teams to test and iterate innovations.

5.Shape the right culture

Even with leadership, talent, and structure in place, innovation is likely to peter off if not supported by the right culture. Corporate cultures that correlate with high levels of internal innovation encourage four values:

  • Innovative thinking
  • Autonomy and proactivity 
  • Market awareness
  • Risk-taking

Read more about how leaders should drive innovation:

The seven barriers outlined in this book point us to exciting future forms of organization:

Intent. Organizations in the future will give employees their intent back and turn them into internal innovators.

Need. Overly complex strategic plans will evolve into a simple statement of purpose that tells employees what the company and the world needs. 

Options. Innovative ideas will come not from boardrooms, but from hallways. 

Value blockers. Instead of just one established way of delivering value, organizations will adopt an ecosystem of business models that give employees greater freedom to change the world.

Act. Companies will no longer ask that employees prove their idea before they can act because they will recognize that innovations require action in order to prove the idea. 

Teams. Organizations will move from hierarchical siloed structures toward agile teams that can move quickly and reconfigure at will. 

Environment. A new environment will evolve as organizations shift toward open platforms where employees can find opportunities and rally resources to change things. There will be a shift in organizations, from asking employees to operate within a confined job description to an open structure that allows them to pursue and test ideas outside of their stated role.

There is no one right path to unlocking internal innovation. By thinking through four sets of drivers—leadership, talent, structure, and culture—it is possible to activate internal innovation and evolve established organizations toward the future. Doing this will unleash value and demand a new form of leadership and “organization.”