Many companies have driven innovators out the door—and into their own businesses—by restricting creative work to a select, anointed few and closing the rest of the team out of the process of innovation.
Now some employers are taking more energetic steps to hold onto these budding entrepreneurs. When Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) was building the HPE Innovation Law Lab in 2018, Emiliano Baidenbaum, chief counsel for the Americas at HPE’s financial services business unit, and Jeffrey Fougere, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Innovation Strategist, wanted to create a more inclusive approach to innovation within HP’s legal department. The legal department is very focused on generating creative ideas, with events like hackathons a regular activity.
Fougere—a patent attorney—came up with Idea Matchmaker to make innovation easier throughout the organization, working with a team of colleagues in technology and Human Resources to bring it to life. This platform captures ideas submitted by employees in a giant database, so colleagues around the world can view them and connect easily to discuss and potentially develop them. Launched companywide in 2022, the mobile interface is now available to more than 60,000 employees.
“Our team members are the eyes and ears of things that are going on day-to-day,” says Fougere. “They’re the ones who see inefficiencies in our processes, or new opportunities. Giving them the power to conceive of an idea and easily connect with their colleagues to bring it to life is really powerful.”
Idea Matchmaker also uses an automated algorithm to share ideas in its database with team members likely to be interested in them. Every two weeks, each employee in the company gets an email about an idea listed on the platform that they have not seen before.
Initiatives like Idea Matchmaker are part of a broader trend that James Taylor, a global keynote speaker on creativity, describes as “backstage creativity.” By encouraging collaboration among “creative pairs” of colleagues, creative teams and even humans plus machines, companies of all sizes are paving the way to more inclusive innovation, allowing the creation of microbusinesses and innovative business units within their companies, according to Taylor.
“For years, we’ve been sold the fiction of the lone creative genius —the pervasive idea that creativity is purely an individual pursuit,” says Taylor. “The traditional media especially loves the idea of the person on the stage with the spotlight on them, the single scientist that discovers the cure for a terrible illness, or the CEO on the front cover of a magazine, as if that CEO had single-handedly built that business. The single, solitary genius makes for good movies and stories, but it’s a lie, a useful fiction.”
“What you rarely notice when you go and see your favorite band, or watch that tech billionaire give a speech at TED, is the hundreds or thousands of people ‘backstage,’ who were involved in creating that innovative concert or company,” says Taylor. “The truth is creativity is as much about what happens backstage as onstage. Creativity is collaborative, a team sport. ‘Backstage creativity’ is about how you get the best from everyone, not just the superstars in your industry.”
Taylor was once a “backstage creative” when he helped manage the careers of high-profile rock stars and Grammy-Award-winning music artists. Then he stepped out from behind the curtain and became a keynote speaker, experiencing the other side of creative collaboration.
“An audience member only sees the creative artist on stage, but they rarely see the hundreds of people backstage that are just as much a part of making it a successful and innovative show as the person with the microphone in their hand,” says Taylor.
At HPE, Idea Matchmaker caught on so quickly it is now used throughout the company. “It’s about creating an ongoing culture of innovation,” says Fougere. “If you want to engage in innovation but need to browse through thousands of projects, it’s going to be burdensome.”
Given HPE’s size, Idea Matchmaker has helped cut through the organizational layers team members must navigate to get initiatives off the ground. “Once you have an idea, it helps you connect to the right people and get it into actual testing, approval and launch,” says Baidenbaum.
The project is not only about monetizing ideas. The company measures the return on this backstage creativity in other ways, such as the number of connections made on its team and ideas viewed by team members. HP also values idea generation and collaboration because they contribute to its culture, according to Baidenbaum and Fougere. “We used the analogy of a dating app, where a technology like Bumble or Tinder is really powerful because people are using it every day, and it makes the process of finding people effortless and fun,” says Fougere.
In May, Idea Matchmaker hit a much-anticipated benchmark of 100,000 ideas viewed. “That was a huge milestone,” says Baidenbaum. “Some of the ideas have been viewed thousands of times.”
One thing driving Idea Matchmaker’s success is the explosive growth of technologies that lower the bar to entering the creative arena—like low-code and no-code tools that allow non-engineers to birth tech products.
“Traditionally, it’s been so difficult for them to follow all of the steps to bring an idea to life that it’s somewhat limiting,” says Fougere. “Some of those limitations are no longer relevant if we use technology in new ways.”
Now Baidenbaum and Fougere are looking to fine-tune the platform further, to, in effect, ensure that all of the backstage creatives on their team can collaborate effectively, across language barriers.
“We’ve discovered that there is a real limiting factor in people’s engagement in the innovation process, not because of the technology or the idea but about communicating that idea,” says Fougere. “We are trying to figure out ways we could use technology, including large language models such as ChatGPT, to take someone’s kernel of an idea and articulate it in the most persuasive way. We’ve seen some promising results from using some of these tools to serve as a communication or writing assistant.”
How much “backstage creativity” appeals to innovators across big companies remains to be seen and will likely depend on how these organizations capture, implement and reward their ideas—or respond when they opt not to pursue them. The history of entrepreneurship has been driven by founders who left their companies because they found a better way to do things and wanted to profit from their ideas. Some of these innovative types may never feel they can achieve either the freedom or the rewards they seek in a corporate environment.
But for those who’d rather be part of a large team and tap into an employer’s resources, “backstage creativity” could be the way to discover and unleash their hidden talents. Says Taylor, “The first step is to unlock the creativity you were born with.”
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