Understanding and Leveraging the Underground Innovation

The WHY and HOWs of "Getting to Know," and being "Able to Harvest" the UNDERGROUND INNOVATION happening in your organization

Chander Nagpal
Chander Nagpal

Innovation is the lifeblood of any organization. So, if your organization lacks innovators, you have a bigger problem to solve.

But, if do you have innovators, it's quite possible that they are doing a lot of "skunkworks", their work is happening underground, away from the limelight of the executive suite.

Innovators might have various reasons for doing their initiatives out of sight.

Some may want to defer discussion until they can present their best case or avoid the demand for results. Sometimes, they might prefer a shortcut to solve problems encountered at work and not spend time getting permission, or they are simply driven by curiosity and determined to push past constraints — even if they aren’t being paid for the work. Employees working on such 'missionary projects' are highly confident about their judgment and sometimes keep working on a project even when directed to stop — a phenomenon known as Creative Deviance.

Then, we might have innovators working on projects that can be of value to colleagues facing similar problems but are concerned that broad acceptance by the organization will lead to others “improving” their solution to meet company standards, with the result being that it no longer solves the original problem. Others might want to avoid the hassle of supporting their colleagues’ use of the tool and being bugged for enhancements. Or, they might fear blowback from their managers for spending time on unsanctioned work.

So, what can organizations do to have the 'skunkworks' - people & their initiatives - come to the surface?

Emphasize the value creation in terms of new products & services and invite the contributions of heroic intrapreneurs or champions, offering resources for continued development, support from decision-makers, and opportunities for career growth. And, keep an eye out for small, but meaningful, changes that are happening within different teams or departments. These can be a sign that someone is experimenting with a new idea or process.

Listen to your employees, especially the ones on the front lines. They often have insights into what is and isn't working. Encourage them to share their ideas and feedback, and take their input seriously.

Appeal to those wanting to help colleagues altruistically by saving others from spending time to solve the same problem, offering financial incentives, and facilitating matchmaking with adopters.

Foster cross-functional collaboration, and inspire and enable bringing together people with different backgrounds and skill sets. Encourage cross-functional collaboration and create opportunities for people to work together on projects outside of their usual roles.

Leverage Technology and tools like social media, collaboration platforms, and idea management software to create channels for employees to share their ideas and co-explore and co-create new solutions.

Establish a Process for evaluating and implementing new ideas. Once you've identified an innovative idea, it's important to have a process for evaluating its potential and implementing it. This should involve input from stakeholders across the organization and a clear plan for execution.

Recognize the 'explorers' through awards and ceremonies, and incorporate their contributions into best practices. This not only helps to motivate and inspire employees, but it also reinforces the importance of innovation as a key driver of success.

By fostering a culture of innovation, listening to your employees, encouraging collaboration, and using technology to uncover hidden innovation, you can tap into the full potential of your organization and unleash a wave of new ideas and initiatives.

Such an approach, one of the cornerstones of an Exponential Organizations yields tangible benefits associated with particular solutions, a greater ability to absorb new external knowledge, increased employee engagement, and a more robust culture of experimentation and personal initiative. 

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Chander Nagpal

With more than 25 years of experience in driving transformation initiatives, Chander is pronounced with a passion for delivering sustainable 10X impact through inspiring, engaging & enabling people.