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Alan Robinson’s Second Book on Ideas Shows Organizations How to Get ‘There’

Alan Robinson

Alan Robinson says “The Idea-Driven Organization” is designed to be a road map for companies looking to glean ideas from frontline employees.

When asked what prompted his second book on the broad subject of ideas in the workplace and how to generate them, Alan Robinson said there was something rather obvious missing from the first one, called Ideas Are Free.

Only, it wasn’t obvious to Robinson and co-author Dean Schroeder at the time.

“When we wrote Ideas Are Free, we made the same mistake a lot of writers make,” said Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “We went out and we looked at organizations — companies, nonprofits, and government agencies — that were doing the best in the world at this; wherever we found these systems, we went and studied them, and we said, ‘this is how they work; here’s what they look like.’

“Then the book came out, and it went all over the world, and soon we were starting to get inquiries,” he went on, noting that it became a bestseller on Amazon. “People were saying, ‘this is great … but how do we do it?’ It took us maybe a couple of years to realize that it is an entirely different problem to show what it’s like to live in this environment and then to show how to get there from being an average company.”

So, The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-Up Ideas was conceived to show how.

Released a few months ago, it provides what Robinson called a road map that companies can follow in their efforts to replicate some of the organizations on the leading edge of what some would call a movement.

Elaborating, he said Ideas Are Free was a comprehensive look at best practices. The sequel, if one can call it that, is all about the journeys that bring companies to that point.

And in the course of chronicling dozens of such journeys, Robinson and Schroeder included lessons that could be taken from three local organizations — Big Y Foods, Health New England, and Springfield Technical Community College, which is, in Robinson’s estimation, one of the few institutions of higher education, if not the only one, that has enjoyed any real success in this realm (more on that later).

Those organizations, like the others cited in the book, have fully grasped what too many companies and their managers still haven’t, said Robinson, and that would be the simple math he calls the ‘80-20 rule,’ meaning that 80% of the overall improvement comes from frontline ideas, and only 20% comes from management-driven initiatives.

“This is the big gorilla in the room, and most organizations just leave it on the table,” he said. “Globalization means that companies have a lot more competition, whether they know it or not, and the Internet means people can find those competitors much more easily and compare. So the pressure on you to perform and to innovate and to get better is higher than it ever was — and, yet, most organizations have very weak cycles of continuous improvement, if they have any at all.”

For this issue and its focus on business management, BusinessWest talked with Robinson about his new book and what it offers to readers, but also about the contributions made by the three area organizations to this so-called road map, and why the author considers them some of the clear leaders in what would have to be called the ideas movement.

The Write Stuff

As he talked about Ideas Are Free, which was released roughly a decade ago, Robinson described it as a labor of love, a work, years in the making, that chronicled what leading-edge companies around the world were doing to generate ideas, review them, and, when appropriate, implement them.

But, as he said, this was a look at best practices.

“There are barriers that organizations have to remove to make their systems work — you don’t just collect ideas; you also fix the policies and the systems, the resource issues, and all the stuff that blocks ideas,” he told BusinessWest. “The process is only 20% of this issue; these obstacles to ideas are something you have to address. But when we were going in and looking at the best in the world, you don’t see those barriers, because they’d already been removed.”

Thus, The Idea-Driven Organization takes the reader back to the barrier-removal process, he went on, and to specific cases, such as one at Big Y that has been oft-cited by Robinson in his many talks on this subject, and has become known simply as the ‘eco bag idea.’

Elaborating, he said a checkout clerk at one of the chain’s stores noted that, often, after he recited the question ‘paper or plastic?’ an embarrassed customer would say that he or she left their eco bags in the car. Therefore, he suggested that signs be put in the parking lot reminding people to remember their eco-bags — a common-sense recommendation that has since been copied by many competitors.

But this sound idea didn’t get put in place for a while, because of some miscommunication and a lack of clarity concerning who was responsible for escalating ideas.

“The store manager was new, and he thought, ‘I don’t have the authority to do this,’” said Robinson, paraphrasing a section from the book called “How Effective Idea Processes Work.” “The idea goes up to the regional manager, who says, ‘it’s the store manager’s authority,’ and doesn’t take any action because he assumes he’s just being informed.”

Fortunately, the company had a policy in place whereby ideas such as this one were red flagged if they were not implemented within a certain period, Robinson went on, adding that, in the course of investigating what went wrong, company executives, including CEO Donald D’Amour, realized that store managers and other executives weren’t being trained properly in what their responsibilities were in such cases.

There are hundreds of other examples of effective obstacle removal in the book, said Robinson, adding that it was designed to help others possibly avoid such barriers to progress.

Overall, the book was undertaken to stress the importance of encouraging, gathering, weighing, and implementing frontline ideas — those that originate with individuals who work in the trenches rather than the corner office — and then provide that road map for putting a system in place.

As for the first part of that equation, the authors sum up neatly why many managers are often blind to frontline ideas — and why, if they want to take their companies forward, they can’t be.

BookJacket“Consider the constant reminders of their superiority that managers are bombarded with in the course of their daily work,” they write. “They wear the suits, they have the private offices, they are the ones chosen for promotion, they are more highly educated and paid significantly more than their subordinates, and everyone defers to them. They are the ones in charge. With all of these signals continually reminding them that they are superior to their employees, it is easy for managers to come to believe that they actually are.”

Robinson told BusinessWest that, among other things, leadership at the three local organizations he cites in The Idea-Driven Organization don’t have that problem, and that’s a big reason why they’ve been so successful.

“One of the messages of our book is that you need to be humble enough to realize that the people who work for you know a lot more than you do, and your job as manager is not to tell them what to do and be the smartest person in the room,” he explained. “Your job is to tap that know-how, and these three companies have done that very well.”

Chapter and Verse

Overall, more than 100 businesses and organizations were cited for their success in The Idea-Driven Organization, and HNE, Big Y, and STCC, all of which have worked extensively with Robinson on their systems, receive prominent mention.

While each was highlighted for different types of obstacle-clearing and pace-setting work, Robinson summed up their contributions to the book — and the ideas movement in general — by telling BusinessWest that each organization highlights the importance of getting a high level of involvement from top management in the creation of an ideas system, implementation, and problem solving.

He started with high praise for STCC and especially its president, Ira Rubenzahl.

“I have my thumb pretty much on what’s going on in this business, and this is the only institution of higher education in the United States that’s doing this,” he said of the 47-year-old college. “They’re the only ones who are actually going out to their frontline people — the registrars, the librarians, and others — and soliciting ideas.

“President Rubenzahl is in higher education, he’s the only one doing this, and higher ed could really benefit from this,” he went on. “Of all the leaders I’ve worked with over the years, he’s put more of his personal self into this than anyone I’ve seen. We did lots of training sessions at STCC, we had lots of meetings, and he sat through every one of them. He really sent a message with that; if you ask him any details about the system, he knows them cold because he’s really engaged in it, and there’s a lesson there for other organizations.”

At Big Y, D’Amour has also taken a leadership role in the ideas process, said Robinson, adding that perhaps his most notable contribution to the process was getting senior management involved early on — especially during a pilot phase involving five of the company’s stores.

“He determined that the executive team would meet every two weeks and review every idea that came up,” Robinson recalled. “The senior team at this 5,000-person company was going to look at every single idea; what that showed them was what kind of things to expect, and the senior management team said, ‘wow, this is really cool. This can really help; we need more of this.’

“The other thing they saw was how these ideas were getting hung up,” he went on, returning to the eco bag. “They said, ‘we have this idea, and it’s a great idea; why isn’t it being implemented?’”

In HNE’s case, Robinson praised now-retired President and CEO Peter Straley for having the foresight to understand years ago that the healthcare industry was heading into uncharted waters, and that his company would have to be imaginative — and nimble — to handle whatever was coming down the road.

“He said, ‘we’re facing Obamacare, we’re also looking at big changes in Medicaid, and no one knows how this is all going to shake out, and the best way to prepare my company is to make it great at improving, great at adapting, and very flexible,’” noted Robinson. “[Straley] knew his company was facing massive change and needed to get better at handling change. That was his rationale, and it was a brilliant piece of leadership.”

The authors praised Straley for his ability to put together a seven-member team to design and oversee an ideas system — one that included the IT director, general counsel, a member of the executive leadership team, several middle managers, and a frontline employee known for proposing improvement ideas — and then provide it with the proper training and the time needed to do its job properly.

“Once the design team is assembled, it must be provided with a thorough education in idea management. Its members will need to have a strong understanding of what high-performing idea processes look like, how they work, and how to address the challenges they will face in creating one,” the authors write. “The initial training can involve classes taught by experts, reading relevant books, and perhaps visits to idea-driven organizations. For the HNE team, the process began with a day of training in idea systems, and then reading and studying two books on managing ideas.

“Once the team began to apply its new knowledge, it began to learn by doing, starting with the assessment of HNE from an ideas perspective,” the authors continue. “As the team members interviewed frontline employees, supervisors, and middle and upper managers, they discovered impediments to the flow of ideas that needed to be addressed. This action learning continued as the team designed their system and rolled it out through their company. In the end, the members of the design team developed considerable expertise in the management of ideas, and HNE went on to successfully implement a high-performing idea system.”

Not the End

Robinson told BusinessWest that he’s already hard at work gathering material for the next book on ideas.

He didn’t say what the specific subject matter would be or when it would be ready to write, but he did note that the ideas movement is still in its relative infancy, and that the process of learning — and teaching others how to do this — is, like the process of soliciting ideas itself, ongoing.

And it seems likely that these Western Mass. companies, and perhaps others, can and will be part of that teaching process.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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