Years ago, as I was documenting work processes in my first big call center project, I made what I thought was an astounding discovery. The experienced call center reps I interviewed had some very good ideas for improving their customer service process. They were having to work around some of the constraints of their IT systems in order to deliver service, and often working around the processes they were given by their managers. When I talked to management about the CSRs processes they were surprised to hear some of my findings. Second astounding discovery: managers don't always know their experienced CSRs' best practices. I recall thinking, "these reps really know their business. If someone could organize their ideas and get them pushed through IT and their own management it would really improve service."
Some years later the organization went through a period of identifying and selecting "innovators" whose role it was to produce innovative ideas and pass them to the rest of the organization. Watching the "innovators" from a distance, it was hard to see that anything was of any more value than the ideas produced by my CSRs in the call center, and most of it was probably a good deal less.
Jack & Suzy Welch's recent BusinessWeek article, Finding Innovation Where it Lives, hits the very point that I thought I'd discovered during my first call center gig. The article may be behind a password, so I'll quote the relevant parts. They debunk the notion that innovations come strictly from individual geniuses working alone, but more often come from coworkers "in the trenches" solving problems as a group and trying to make things work well. However, the organization has to make innovation part of its culture. As I saw in the call center, having great ideas means nothing if no one is there to harvest the ideas and push through changes.
The Welches finish by quoting an e-mail they received from someone who had an idea for a product but didn't know how to introduce it into his organization. They write, "How sad...another place where managers send the message that innovation comes from the chosen few. Imagine the possibilities...not to mention the fun, when organizations engage everyone else in the process, too."
That's innovation management, the ability to change the organization and draw everyone into the challenge of improving services and create processes that harvest and organize everyone's ideas, not just those of the "chosen few."