Innovation is the life-blood of any organization.  All patterns of success grow stale and eventually fade.  Then, the new must emerge.

When most of us think of innovation, we think it happens in predictable, sterile environments – labs, board rooms, or maybe in the office of your organization’s brilliant genius. And yes, we certainly hope innovation happens there.  But I think a lot of innovation happens in an overlooked place: the front line.

Take my flight from Chicago to Boston last week: I was standing in the back galley of the plane chatting with a very experienced flight attendant.  She was giving me a running color commentary on the boarding process – the things that passengers predictably do and the problems caused as a result.  While she had an air of resignation about this, she also had a sense of humor about it.

When talking about a particular issue, I asked what the airline told flight attendants to do in a given situation.  Her response was both amusing and revealing.

Honey, they don’t tell us what to do with most of these things, but we figure it out.  We always figure out a way to make it work – that’s our job.

And it struck me: every day, people who are faced with customer challenges – overstuffed overhead bins, unruly passengers, a missing piece of equipment – figure out ways to make things work.  They innovate.  They find a new pattern to replace a poor one or a missing one. They succeed, sometimes in spite of the support (or lack of support) from the lab, the board room, or the genius’ office.

Maybe we ought to spend as much time scouring these front-line interactions for the next brilliant idea as we do sending them our wonderful solutions.  If we listened, we just might find a whole new treasure trove of innovation.