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The Secrets of Successful Idea People

Great ideas don't execute themselves. Identify the "idea practitioners" in your company—the people who turn blue sky into green profit.

As important as the continual search for new concepts is to a company, the task of helping those ideas gain traction is just as critical. Everyone who has seen a corporate change initiative wither on the vine knows that there is often a yawning gap between brilliant new ideas and concrete business results.

Bridging that gap are people sometimes referred to as idea practitioners (IPs). Such managers "make it their job to identify business ideas that can make a difference for their companies and make them happen," says Thomas H. Davenport, director of Accenture's Institute for Strategic Change, President's Distinguished Professor of Management and Information Technology at Babson College, and coauthor of What's the Big Idea? IPs are not ordained to this work, note Davenport and coauthors Laurence Prusak and H. James Wilson; in fact, they rarely have a formal mandate for what they do.

Reading widely outside of one's discipline has been probably the biggest source of ideas.
—Lawrence Baxter, Wachovia

What idea practitioners share is more than the ability to get excited by an idea's potential. As they scan the horizon for new ideas to bring back to their companies, their finely honed sensibility for what it will take for an idea to overcome internal resistance serves as a filter. Only those ideas that pass this workability test get brought forward. At that point, the IP's skills as cheerleader, viral marketer, ambassador, battlefield tactician, and savvy political insider come to the fore.

It was just such a skill set that enabled Dan Holtshouse, a director in Xerox's corporate strategy group and a thirty-year veteran with the company, to implement knowledge management initiatives throughout the organization. The success of those efforts in the early 1990s created a kind of tipping point: it helped Xerox see the competitive advantage in shifting from being just a product company focused on reproducing documents to a product-and-services company focused on managing documents and the knowledge they capture.

IPs are present in most organizations—What's the Big Idea? identifies and examines the work of more than fifty. Harvard Management Update asked five of these IPs for tips on bringing ideas to life.

1. Think out of the office
Each of the five IPs started with the same piece of advice: read—and not only in subjects that are directly related to your profession. "For me, reading widely outside of one's discipline has been probably the biggest source of ideas," says Lawrence Baxter, chief e-commerce officer at the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank Wachovia. "I almost feel like a cheat because people think I've come up with these ideas, but I've just gone out and got them from someplace else." For example, his reading about complexity theory helped him promote Wachovia's diversity initiative as a strategic move that would help the corporate organism be healthier and stronger. That framing seemed to render the initiative more attractive to skeptical employees.

The second most cited source of new ideas: contacts outside your company. "My network is where I get some of my best ideas," says Dave Clarke, vice president of Enterprise Technology Services at the American Red Cross (Washington, D.C.). "I have a small number of people that I talk to fairly regularly, and I think we have a good exchange of ideas."

Charles Sieloff, who recently retired after a twenty-eight-year career in IT at Hewlett-Packard, found a "filtered source of ideas" in cross-industry shared-cost research programs. "It was a way of getting systematic exposure to new ideas, leading-edge vendors, and other companies," he explains. These groups introduced Sieloff to the concept of process innovation; he, in turn, introduced it to HP, which became one of the first major corporations to adopt the practice of reengineering.

2. Check the fit
Once IPs find an idea that excites them, they begin a process of evaluation. This process can seem a bit mysterious or idiosyncratic at times, even to the IPs themselves. But in addition to the intuitive component, there is also a series of litmus tests that the IPs apply:

· Is the idea aligned with your sphere of influence? An IP's authority and access to power create a "framework for success," says Reuben Slone, vice president of supply chain for Whirlpool North America (Benton Harbor, Mich.). "It determines the size of the sandbox you are allowed to play in." In Whirlpool's current drive to become a brand-based organization, brand expertise is what gives you routine access to senior management and enables you to introduce ideas on a broad scale throughout the company, explains Slone. "I am not viewed as having any real experience on the brand side, so my purview has been somewhat narrower."

Try to anchor the idea in as many places inside the company and with as many customers that are important to the company as possible.
—Dan Holtshouse, Xerox

Even so, his direct authority over the company's supply chain means that ideas he champions can have significant ripple effects. For instance, the logistics applications he introduced, inspired by chaos theory and research into pattern recognition, helped Whirlpool improve the product mix in the trailer loads it ships to customers. The results—a streamlined distribution process, a reduction in inventory, and a boost in sales—have benefited both Whirlpool and its supply chain partners.

· Does the idea suit the organizational context? Baxter found that Wachovia's megamerger with First Union had radically changed the context for new ideas. "It created a much more delicate cycle of ideation," he says. "We needed to be very risk averse because any failures would get an extremely high amount of attention and would trigger fear that we couldn't pull the merger off. We really had to focus like we had never focused before. What that meant was that we actively killed ideas" that weren't directly applicable to making the merger work. Blue-sky ideas of the type that facilitated Wachovia's early entry into e-commerce got postponed.

· Is the timing right? Sometimes you come across a perfectly good idea but there's "no problem at the moment that lends itself to that idea," says Sieloff, who is now a research affiliate at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, a nonprofit think tank focused on long-range forecasting. "So there were times when I might incubate an idea for a couple of years until the right opportunity came along." During the mid-1980s, for example, Sieloff realized that the concepts of Total Quality Management (TQM) being used in manufacturing could be extended to other functions.

"I was very intrigued with trying to apply that to a software development environment. But I had to wait a couple of years until I had direct responsibility for a big project that I could use as a guinea pig for trying out some of the concepts," he says. That opportunity came in the form of a project to create software for HP's procurement system. Embedding TQM principles in the development process, Sieloff oversaw the creation of a system that HP used for more than a decade to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

3. Sow plenty of seeds
"Try to anchor the idea in as many places inside the company and with as many customers that are important to the company as possible," says Xerox's Holtshouse, who was instrumental in the company's successful early adoption and utilization of knowledge management concepts. To help seed Xerox's KM initiative, Holtshouse concentrated his efforts on these key activities:

  • creating a small corporate-level organization to promote the effort
  • launching grass-roots KM projects to build internal support
  • convincing Xerox's scientists to conduct KM-related research
  • eventually creating KM products and services for customers

One of the grass-roots projects, the Eureka Initiative, became the poster child for the KM movement both inside the company and out. This online database, which collected the solutions to unusual service problems among Xerox's 20,000 field engineers, created savings of $15 million per year. Its resounding success caught the attention of Xerox's field engineers and senior management alike; Holtshouse leveraged this goodwill to the benefit of the company's other KM activities.

4. Be willing to fly under the radar
Whirlpool's Slone uses small pilot projects to build support for ideas. "Everything we have done, every change we have made and will continue to make in our supply chain is an example of, 'Think big and implement in little pieces,'" he says.

One such trial project involved implementing a "pull" system nationwide for a small number of refrigerator stock-keeping units (SKUs). This new process generated a 10 percent overall reduction in inventory costs while improving product availability. Undertaking the project quietly and for just a small number of SKUs helped minimize the risks—no one's career would be on the line if it failed. Once the project had proved itself, it was easy to build support for rolling it out more broadly.

The other advantage of flying under the radar, adds Slone, is that "making it a little bit on the sly is always kind of sexy and exciting for people. They feel more empowered. They feel like they are doing something special." But, of course, if you want people to stay charged up about the stealth initiative, you've got to be willing to share the reins. And you can't get too hung up on getting credit for your work. IPs find that taking personal ownership of ideas interferes with successful launches; moreover, if they have too high a profile, their ability to operate effectively diminishes.

Wachovia's Baxter recalls: "A friend of mine who was retiring stood up and, intending to be very kind to me, said to the gathering, 'My best piece of advice to you is pay more attention to the ideas that Baxter generates.' I winced as he said that because I knew that he meant well, but I also knew that other people were sitting there thinking, 'That almost guarantees that I am not going to listen to you.'"

Recognition is not the true measure of success—for an IP, the real reward lies in seeing the idea make a difference in the life of the organization.

Reprinted with permission from "The Four Secrets of Idea Practitioners," Harvard Management Update, May 2003.

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Theodore Kinni is a Virginia-based writer. He can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu