The key to a successful innovation program is a well-thought-out and clearly articulated structure. Especially for a new innovation initiative, a concentrated and targeted objective enables you to create success.
“How do we start?” is often one of the first questions we hear when customers are launching a new innovation initiative. While building an innovation program can be daunting, there are two rules of thumb we always recommend our customers stick to:
- Make It Attainable
- Make It Relevant.
One approach: start small. Stepping into “innovation” comes with a lot of risk and unknowns. Borrowing from Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, which emphasizes a minimum viable product as the first goal for a new startup, Harvard Business Review’s article Build an Innovation Engine in 90 Days refers to building a “minimum viable innovation system.” A minimum viable innovation system will allow you to test your assumptions about ideation strategy and decision-making and identify some innovation leaders to help you expand to a larger program. When first launching an innovation program, a concentrated and targeted objective enables you to create success in a short time frame. For instance, don’t start your program by looking to overhaul your sales process. Instead, zero in on a specific opportunity for improvement or a particular part of the process that could use some attention.
Choosing a specific, attainable objective will increase your likelihood of success. A small success can have a huge impact because it builds confidence in your process and can lessen the fear of change that keep organizations stuck in status quo. Having an early “win” will generate the momentum to build out a larger program and expand into more areas of your business later on.
As you start to define which areas of the business you will focus on, your “innovation locus,” it is critical that you pick top-of-mind challenges. Many organizations that try to drive large-scale engagement fail because they don’t align their program with topics that truly matter to the business.
Choose objectives that are important to you and whose relevance you can demonstrate to your organization. If you can connect your initiative with a goal that a group of employees is already working towards, they’ll see a direct benefit and be more motivated to participate. Then, you can leverage their excitement to spread the word about your program and take a more grassroots approach to achieving organization-wide engagement. By choosing objectives that are top of mind with executives, you can more easily obtain executive support to help drive your initiative forward. Executives can speak to the importance of the initiative and its relevance to your business goals. They can rally innovators or get involved in decision making. They can even help secure approval and budget to move forward with the top ideas.
Finding an area of focus
Now that you have your fundamental guidelines, the next step is to consider what types of innovation to pursue. There are many ways to frame your thought process about categorizing your innovation efforts. A popular and useful framework, the Doblin innovation model, as covered in “Ten Types of Innovation,” characterizes innovation into three different areas of your business:
- Configuration. How your business is set up and operates (internal-facing);
- Experience. How your customers interact with your product or service, the external-facing element of your business; and
- Offering. Your product or service itself which is the place where internal operations and external customers come together.
These categories are further broken down into the ten types or areas where you can take a new approach that will set you apart from your competitors:
Once you’ve identified your innovation type, narrow your focus even further to find a more-specific topic or objective that is in line with that type. For example, if you’re a manufacturing company and you’ve chosen to focus on Product Performance, a more specific objective might be to address a problem with one of your materials. Similarly, a software company wanting to improve their Customer Service, might choose a Service type innovation as their area of focus. A more specific objective within that type could be to empower customers to troubleshoot problems on their own. Moving from a broader innovation type to a very specific business objective enables you to start thinking about the constraints and criteria with which you’ll evaluate ideas and recognize viable solutions.
Regardless of what type you choose to focus on, “strategically speaking, all innovation falls into one of two buckets,” according to the Harvard Business Review: “Core” and “New-Growth.” “Core Innovations” enhance your current business and are in scope with the challenges or opportunities your teams are already thinking about; and “New-Growth Innovations” allow you to tap into new markets and expand your customer reach, challenging innovators to think beyond the scope of current business operations. For innovation efforts to be successful, it’s critical that everyone involved understand these two buckets and agree about which one your efforts will fall into. As the authors of the Review article argue, “The failure to [be clear about these buckets] causes many companies to either discount the importance of innovations that strengthen the ongoing business or demand too much revenue from the new-growth initiatives too early.” Identifying your innovation bucket will often level-set expectations in terms of who your innovation leaders should be, what type of budget you’ll need and in what timeframe you will see your objectives realized.
Now that you’ve built the foundation for your innovation structure by choosing your objective, the next step is to choose your innovation team. The people you involve in each initiative are as important as the area you choose to focus on. In his book The Bright Idea Box, Jag Randhawa shares his discovery that “what differentiates an innovative company from an average company is the people working inside the company. Their drive, engagement and close alignment to a common vision are perhaps the greatest predictors of success and continuous innovation.”
Similarly, what differentiates a successful innovation initiative from a fruitless one are the innovators that participate and collaborate with one another and the innovation leaders who guide the discussion and make decisions about ideas. Whether you start with a small team or a large one, casting a wide net in terms of expertise will bring in a wider variety of perspectives and experiences. Choosing team members, and especially innovation leaders, from different departments to represent the different voices in your organization is likely to lead to better ideas. A diverse innovation team encourages cross pollination of ideas, increases the visibility of your initiative and cuts down on duplication of effort. Use your innovation initiatives as a way to break down silos, and get people from across your organization working towards your attainable, relevant and highly focused objectives.