Uncovering Underground Innovators


TipriTV.com Uncovering Underground Innovators by Dr. Gary Oster

For who has despised the day of small things? (Zechariah 4:10, NKJV)

Every shopkeeper, service technician, and administrator knows that the clientele they serve today is not the same as they served five years ago. Customers today have very different needs and expectations. Fresh ideas and innovations to serve customers’ changing needs are the lifeblood of every organization, and failure to keep up with customer needs means they will take their business elsewhere. But where can we dig up more important new ideas?

Organizational leaders may have unintentionally overlooked a powerful source of fresh, innovative ideas: current company employees. Sometimes labeled “emergent innovation” by the business press, the heartbeat of innovation is already alive and at work somewhere in the organization, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant. It is “emergent” because it requires a process to seek out, recognize, and promote “underground” innovation methods already successfully at work in the organization.

Leaders play an important role in recognizing and promoting underground innovation and, at the same time, making the internal environment more amenable to innovation efforts.

Why Are Innovators Underground?

An “underground innovator” is any employee who quickly and quietly develops products, services, ideas, environments, or processes, informally and outside of regular organizational channels. He or she exists and works “off-radar.” The work of the underground innovator is often focused on meeting customer needs but with a physical or performance level outside of normal company standards. This maverick is adept at sidestepping traditional rules and may skip entire stages of the formal innovation procedures.     

Underground innovators may be hiding their innovation efforts to avoid the glare of scrutiny in an organization that doesn’t routinely support, and may instead be toxic to, their innovation efforts. Most innovation today comes from the minds of top organizational officials.

Yet Job said of God:

He is not partial to princes, nor does He regard the rich more than the poor; for they are all the work of His hands” (Job 34:19, NKJV).

Fresh, new ideas never depend upon the age, position, or seniority of the source: in God’s economy, all are equally equipped to produce new ideas.

Going Underground

Innovators are often forced underground by a number of circumstances:

Organizational Priorities: This underground innovator focuses on customers, and echoes the apostle Paul, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 NKJV). He or she often attempts to fulfill a customer need by using solutions far different from existing organizational requirements for cost, quality, or margins. In addition, there may be no way to accurately prove the size of the potential market.
Corporate Innovation Process: Approval for innovation projects in organizations is often lengthy, highly political, and supportive of the status quo. Rigid internal budget cycles often run one to two years, eliminating funding for all fast-track innovation. The underground innovator may instead complete a project in weeks or even days.

Tradition: Organizations aid innovation resistance by rewarding employees for their allegiance to the historical past of the company. The corporate structure typically has little support for those who question tradition, orthodoxy, and legacy strategies, yet finding new solutions to customer needs often requires escape from a rigid past.

Personality “Fit”: Underground innovators are sometimes misfits. They may be rebels, lack traditional credentials, or exist on the edges of their professions. They often possess personal idiosyncrasies, a strong will, a touch of hubris, and a tendency to ignore or reject organizational rules, causing them to be suspect in the organization. And yet, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:25-29 NKJV).

Why Underground Innovators are Important

Underground innovators currently at work inside your organization are already successful. Learning and incorporating their methods may insure that your organization exists a year from now. First, as in all other matters, leaders must ask God for guidance: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him”(James 1:5 NKJV). Next, leaders must communicate to all that innovation is crucial to the success of the organization. Surfacing the activities and methods of underground innovators must be done quietly and gradually. The goal is to begin an informal conversation with each individual innovator. It may be necessary for a trusted person to mediate between leadership and the invisible innovator. The mediator may discover the methods that have worked for the underground innovator, the hindrances that drove their efforts underground, and what would be required to informally spread successful methods to other areas of the corporation.

Why would the underground innovators agree to be “uncovered?” Because they anticipate being rewarded with a clearer pathway for implementation of their innovations, including recognition and appreciation, endorsement by leaders, and increased availability of resources to expand production of their innovative ideas. 

Moving Forward

Instead of rigidly formalizing the methods learned from underground innovators (and thus driving it back underground again), training on workable techniques discovered from successful underground innovators should be provided to all employees who wish to receive it, and each should be encouraged to innovate. At the same time, corporate executives must intentionally eliminate those barriers within the organization that regularly force innovation efforts underground. The result will be an increasing number of “small wins,” driven by motivated and opportunistic employees to quickly meet changing market needs. The quiet, invisible innovation successes of the past may lead to positive innovation change throughout the organization, and help the organization to thrive in the challenging years ahead. Working together in this process may provide the lesson, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 NKJV).


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