Grassroots Innovation: It’s about Permission

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the UP America Summit, in friendly Iowa City, Iowa. It was put on by UP Global, the folks behind Startup Weekend, StartupDigest, NEXT, and Startup America. They got a bunch of us who run innovation programs together for a dedicated corporate track, to share our common learnings, struggles, and success stories. I represented The Garage, Microsoft’s grassroots innovation community, along with people from Coca-Cola, Sprint, The World Bank, GoDaddy, American Airlines, ACT, Hallmark, and others.

I put together a few of the key themes that emerged over and over within the group and wanted to share them here. The one that absolutely resonated with everyone instantly, is the title of this article, and the first point I’d like to call out:

  1. Grassroots innovation is about permission. Fueling creative tinkering with new ideas can’t be management-directed, but it must be management-supported. Those closest to the customers, problems, and existing products (typically at the bottom of a hierarchy) have the most personal drive to try a new approach to a problem, and this autonomy fuels their projects long after an executive mandate has worn off. However, if an employee feels that their efforts to innovate are counter to their “real job,” the project tends to die off over time. One thing that we practice at The Garage is having passionate employees plan and organize a Garage Week (think: blue-sky hackathon within an product team), but have executives promote participation via an email to the whole organization to grant such “permission to innovate.”
  2. Innovation is about a culture shift, not just money or ideas. Nobody owns innovation. Neither infinite resources, nor the “perfect platform” to surface the most innovative ideas will succeed without an organization-wide chutzpah toward innovation. We found that many of our companies have seen various forms of “internal Kickstarters,” idea voting platforms, and contests that did not achieve their goal of finding “that next big innovative thing” without a cultural embrace.
  3. Open innovation is important. Mathematically, the sum of experts with skills and experiences outside of any given company is larger than the sum of experts inside. We are often blind to a future innovation because we don’t embrace those outside our organization who can truly define the problem and solution. Getting employees outside the walls of the company and out into the community is paramount.
  4. Access is the greatest thing we can provide startups. And more specifically, access in a timely manner. If a startup is working toward a partnership with a large company, they often waste an incredible amount of time being passed around internally. If we really want to encourage open innovation and allow an idea to flourish, the greatest service we can do is recognize if it isn’t a good fit early, cut the chord, and save the startup valuable time by being honest and closing the door. If we can think of an introduction we can make that’s a better fit, that’s a bonus too. The list of startups that had an interesting new product that failed due to partnerships with a big company that never quite materialized is far too long.
  5. Innovation isn’t new. We can learn from our company history. Every billion dollar company, whether it is innovative today or not, had at least one enormous innovation in the past. It could have been business model (such as the advent of loyalty programs) or technology (such as the computer mouse), but that billion dollars didn’t come from doing the status quo. So, we should look within our companies at the environments that created those innovations in our past. The nuance is that recreating these conditions is hard since the these often occurred before exponential growth. Innovation at scale is a much trickier problem since it involves a massive amount of communication, collaboration, and precision. But at least, by examining our history of disruptions, we’ve got a great place to start.

The most important thing that we can do now: keep sharing our successes and failures with each other. We can approach corporate innovation the same way that we approach Startup Weekends: experiential education, where we learn by trying new things, and iterating when something seems to stick.


  1. Ben it was a pleasure and joy to meet you and get to know you. I look forward to keeping in touch and following all your adventures. Thanks for these notes! Hope to see you again in the near future!!!

  2. Zach Friedman says:

    Great post. The points about permission and culture are spot on: you need to design innovation into the way your organization actually does work, but not strangle innovation by controlling it too much. What are some of the rewards/recognition you could use to motivate employees to work on solving problems? How could you structure your organization to allow people to flow to these new opportunities? Intentionally designing your organization and having leadership own and reinforce the change will have a huge impact on grassroots innovation.

  3. demi wetzel says:

    Aw you guys know each other! Small world Ohio! :)

  4. andy says:

    Ben – thanks for pulling our thoughts together, I think you nailed it. Great to meet you.

  5. emergent says:

    This is great – thanks!

  6. Alan Gilbert says:

    Everyone is always busy following whatever their current plan is. Innovation requires you to be able to step away from your daily grind and get a fresh look at things. That’s where the permission comes in. It’s got to be OK to step away from our ever-present schedules and feature backlogs to see the forest.

  7. Rex Williams says:

    It was great to meet you yesterday during our Microsoft tour, Ben. Thanks for showing us around the Garage and giving us some great tips and ideas for our efforts. We’re just getting started on our innovation journey, and it’s interesting to see how we’ve converged on the same principles for employee led innovation.
    (and thanks for the stickers. They’re all over my notebook already.)
    I’m joining The Cult of Done.

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