In Depth

Startups need systems to scale up, but should not lose out on creative idea flow: author Alan Robinson

Alan G. Robinson is a professor at the Isenberg School of Management of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has served on the board of examiners of the US Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. He has advised more than 60 organisations in 10 countries on how to improve their creativity, and has written several books on corporate innovation.

Alan’s most recent book is The Idea-Driven Organisation (see my review). On a recent trip to the US, I interviewed Alan, and he joins us in this exclusive chat on idea practices in startups, scaling organisations without losing on idea flow, creativity and age, national cultures, knowledge management and ideas in government.

AlanGRobinsonYS: What is your current field of research in the ideas domain? How big a role do academics play in industry innovation?

A: I have published a number of books in the area of ideas and corporate creativity. I have given talks and lectures at IIM Bangalore and consulted for a range of firms in India as well.

I was one of the first Americans to go to Japan to study their engineering and management practices. Unlike the US approach at that time of relying heavily on top-down enterprise processes, the Japanese were focusing more on bottom-up ideas. These were some topics I wrote about in a book with Shigeo Shingo, one of the main forces behind the development of the Toyota Production System.

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There are many academics who do not deal directly with industry, and many consultants who do not have connections to academia. The best combination for industry is academics who also work as consultants. To have relevance for industry, academics need to step out of their ivory towers and do more than just crunching surveys.

YS: How was your book received?  

A: The book has just been released about a month ago, and is already climbing up in Amazon rankings. My earlier book, Corporate Creativity, did very well, as well as Ideas are Free. The interesting responses I get are: “I wish my boss would read this book!”

YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature big companies; what are your findings with respect to small startups?

A: I have also done work on how entrepreneurs generate ideas (see my recent blog on Keep Innovation Flowing as Your Startup Grows). For example, I write about the company Boardroom, who invited Peter Drucker to visit them when they were starting up with just about 30 employees.

Startups do not yet have the bureaucracy and complex structures which can sometimes stifle idea flow. But at the same time, strong minded entrepreneurs risk shutting off the flow of ideas if they have an attitude of ‘it’s my way or the highway.’

YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from an innovative startup to a large player?

A: As startups scale, they should put in place systems which are just enough to run the company smoothly, without getting in the way of new ideas as the world and ecosystem change. Systems have benefits, of course – they ‘save yourself stress, time, energy and money,’ as the acronym goes.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

A: Leaders tend to focus more on the big picture and aggregate data, and are at risk of losing touch with the frontline of ideas. As long as they keep their minds open, they will not face nasty surprises and changes of new circumstances. If they hear enough and are open enough, they will even question their vision when necessary and adapt to the changed world.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for getting ideas, or can creativity last for a longer time? 

A: This question is asked a lot. The MacArthur Foundation published a study on ‘Age and Creativity’. Interestingly, the most creative years for people are between the ages of 40 and 55. If you see creativity as being able to make connections that others do not see, then the older you get the more connections you see and the more creative you become. In the corporate world, this also has implications for knowledge management and idea mining.

Interestingly, one of the innovators I came across had his best blockbuster idea at the age of 84!

YS: Who are some of the idea experts you admire the most today? 

A: Among practitioners, I greatly admire the classic innovators like Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci, especially the methods and techniques they used to make themselves more and more creative. Among authors and academics, I admire Clayton Christiansen, Teresa Amabile and Edward de Bono.

YS: Are some cultures better suited to idea flow and acceptance than others? 

A: This question also gets asked a lot! Singapore has struggled with trying to overcome its image of robotic top-down approaches to spur creativity. On visits to China where I explained idea practices, I have often been told ‘this will never work in China.’ In Russia, I heard a lot of talk of embracing bottom-up ideas (drawing on their Soviet heritage) but many managers did not really seem to care about such ideas.

So I would say that ‘freer’ countries, entrepreneurial cultures and those who are less hierarchical or patriarchal and more open to debate creative disruption will be better suited to implement bottom-up idea practices.

YS: Do legal issues, ownership, IP, etc. come in the way of free idea flow?

A: Yes, some people are scared that revealing their ideas will open them to risk of plagiarisation or outright theft. Of course, if you are a company with a finished product you should protect it possibly by patenting it before offering it to other firms – but a cooperative culture which gives credit to idea generators will not suffer from such fear.

YS: What do you see as the connections between the fields of idea management and knowledge management (KM)?

A: If companies archive their generated ideas and implementations and make them easy to browse and search, that yields a lot of value, especially if it also connects people to the idea process and ideators. Ideas and knowledge are opposite sides of the same coin; it helps to codify expertise.

YS: How much uptake do you see of idea management in government? 

A: Many governments tend to focus on firefighting and not enough on bottom-up idea flow. Theoretically, leaders and politicians like to be seen as a ‘man of the people’ or ‘woman of the people’ and hence should be more open to getting ideas from the people. The ideological and practical rationale seems to be there, but is not practiced enough. In fact, that is what my next book is going to be about – look out for it in a couple of years!

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

A: Make sure it never becomes hard for you to listen! Look at how some entrepreneurs have successfully built up their organisations on the power of bottom-up idea flow: Amancio Ortega, founder of Zara fashion retail stores, started off with a small store 20 years ago and is now the world’s third richest man. He describes humility as his greatest success factor – being humble in the face of the vast collective knowledge of his employees.


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About the author

Madanmohan Rao is research director at YourStory Media and editor of five book series ( His interests include creativity, innovation, knowledge management, and digital media. Madan is also a DJ and writer on world music and jazz. He can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao

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