Regardless of industry, a good leader spends time connecting with employees, soliciting feedback and crowdsourcing solutions. Good leaders ask what their employees think about their jobs and how to improve them.
If you're doing this, then although you may not realize it, you're running innovation challenges. To make the most of these challenges, it's best to be intentional about how you run them and why. In this sense, it's important to understand the strategic differences between large and small challenges.
An innovation challenge is a method of crowdsourcing solutions from your employees, customers or other stakeholders in a structured and repeatable way. Running a challenge enables you to address a problem or opportunity by gathering feedback from the individuals who understand the issue best.
Smaller challenges tend to involve a smaller time frame, cohort, or issue — they can even be as small as asking a five-person team how they can best keep the office kitchen cleaner. Conversely, larger challenges deal with a larger time frame, cohort, or issue, like how multiple, hundred-person departments can be better aligned.
Challenges are a great way to get in touch with the people closest to a given product or process. After all, the CEO usually doesn’t have insight into the nitty-gritty of how an assembly line works, or how IT’s ticketing system could be improved.
As flexible as innovation challenges can be, without a deliberate focus on execution, the process can fall apart: small organizations forget to run the large challenges that help to inform their broader strategy, and large organizations' cumbersome hierarchy prevents them from running the small challenges that keep them agile.
Consider a small company with only a handful of people. Anytime there’s a hiccup, somebody reaches out over email, brings it up in their weekly meeting or just stops by their coworker’s desk. This way, they gradually make their business more and more effective, they learn what parts of their processes are and are not working and they learn how to help their coworkers do their jobs better.
What’s happening in this example is special: the small company is responding quickly to threats and opportunities. Essentially, it's running ad hoc small challenges. But this agility is often a double-edged sword — according to smallbiztrends.com, roughly half of all small businesses fail within 5 years. Among the reasons they cite are:
In short, many of the reasons small businesses fail is because they are too reactive. They often fail to follow larger, longer-term goals that can help inform their strategy.
In situations like this, a small business can benefit from running large challenges. The individuals in a small business work hard every day to make the company a success, and crowdsourcing solutions and ideas from them about the larger goals of the organization can both help to develop that long-term strategy and remind everyone to think ahead.
Now consider a large company. Perhaps once a quarter, leadership asks the workforce to provide feedback on a large, abstract challenge over the course of months. Engagement gradually falls off, there’s no real consensus on what the results of the challenge were, and eventually, something gets implemented, but it doesn’t exactly address the original problem and might even make people’s jobs harder.
That’s why it's important for large organizations to remember to run challenges at smaller levels alongside those larger, difficult-to-manage challenges. The agility that makes small organizations so responsive and adaptable is an important quality to retain. Just because the organization as a whole is too large to turn on a dime anymore doesn’t mean that individual teams and departments can’t make internal changes to adapt and evolve.
When crowdsourcing solutions using innovation challenges, it’s important to implement both smaller challenges that allow the organization to constantly experiment and improve on a continuous basis, and larger challenges that can provide vision and longer-term guidance. No matter the challenge, small and large organizations will benefit from from running small and large challenges in a deliberate, structured and repeatable way.
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