Rules of behavior for emergent experimentation

August 18, 2008

I am a big fan of a culture of experimentation as a driver of innovation. I believe it creates the divergence necessary to create the best, and least incremental, options. I also think that if an organization relies on top down direction to achieve that experimentation then it risks missing many of the most interesting opportunities. Steve Jobs aside, large companies have not exhibited a good track record when it comes to picking the right bets and I think that is because they started with too meager a set of choices.

I was wondering what the rule set might be for encouraging bottom-up or emergent experimentation such that you end up with better innovation options without the chaos or diffusion of "letting a thousand flowers bloom". Here is my take:

  1. Assume the best ideas emerge from the organizational ecosystem, including all stake-holders not just employees.
  2. Set conditions so that those in the ecosystem who are most likely to be stimulated by changing external factors (technology, business factors, consumer needs, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones who are best situated and motivated to have new ideas.
  3. Do not favor ideas based on the author. Favor the relevance of the content.
  4. Do favor ideas that create organizational resonance. Indeed demand new ideas gain a following, even if small and vocal, before giving organizational support.
  5. Use the resources of senior leadership (the top-down bit) to cultivate, to tend, prune and harvest ideas.
  6. Articulate an over-arching purpose so that the ecosystem has a context in which to innovate without top down control. (John Mackie has done a great job of this at Whole Foods)

None of these rules is necessarily easy to apply, especially for a top-down oriented organization, but I think they might achieve some pretty spectacular results. What do you think?