“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”
The above quote by philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli says it all. As you start (or grow) your innovation management program, be fully aware that it is not an easy journey, and there are many boxes to tick before convincing your stakeholders and creating impact.
Unfortunately, there is no one golden rule for success here. Every company is different, with their specific goals, culture, and dynamics all impacting your route to victory. Having worked in the innovation management field for nearly a decade, I've noticed that although there are vast differences between companies, the most successful online innovation management programs all share common themes.
I compiled these themes to create the "10 Rules of Innovation Management," a collection of best practices.
The "10 Rules" series is broken up into five parts, which covers everything from beginner mistakes (so you don't make the same ones!) to success stories of programs creating hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue. We also share in-depth advice on core elements of your program as well as simple tips and tricks you can start using today. Whether you’re an expert in innovation management or just starting your first program, you’ll benefit from this series.
In between each blog post, I also answered readers' questions in short webinars that you can watch in the time it takes for you to drink a cup of coffee (watch the first one here!).
We're kicking off the series with the foundations of innovation management by discussing Alignment, Management Support, and Sponsorship. These three themes form the connection between your innovation program and your company, and strongly influence the submission quality, growth, and implementation rate of your program's ideas.
RULE 1: ALIGN YOUR COMPANY STRATEGY AND INNOVATION GOALS TO DRIVE QUALITY AND ACCEPTANCE
Asking for ideas without providing direction is like trying to cross the ocean without a compass. Of course, one such unguided effort discovered America, but most compass-less attempts ended shipwrecked on the rocks. Your company won't benefit from unaligned ideas. No matter how fantastic the idea is, if it doesn't align with the business strategy, there won't be enough cultural readiness to realize it.
"Asking for ideas without providing direction is like trying to cross the ocean without a compass."
In my previous life as an innovation program manager at a large international cable provider, we once received the fully elaborated concept to improve customers' mobile internet reception by adding antenna functionality to outdoor jackets. Although there was a customer need, and the idea was technically feasible, the implementation wasn't approved because entering the fashion market was too far from where the company was heading.
This example shows that you need to inform your idea-generating crowd on what kind of input you're looking for. Otherwise, they'll spend (or waste) their time on ideas that won't make the cut anyways.
Your idea-generators need a clearly defined framework to understand the company's (desired) direction. Formulate a definition of what “innovation” means in your company and set an innovation strategy aligned with your company’s vision. Based on this overall strategy, you can define strategic innovation areas that outline the domains to look into for ideas. Describe these areas in a simple-to-understand way and engage as many people as possible.
"Formulate a definition of what 'innovation' means in your company and set an innovation strategy aligned with your company’s vision."
Simplifying the description of your strategy has a surprising side-effect; improved strategic awareness! People seem more excited about innovation than strategy formulations (if shared at all), and so the early successes of a just-started innovation program often includes getting your employees “all aboard.”
It's also crucial to align your innovation approach with the culture of your company. The amount of online innovation experience your employees have, as well as what you'd like to do as an innovation team, will decide your topics and goals.
You’ll see different behavior from different sets of people. This could be by geographical regions, skill sets, and demographics. Some people flourish under direct orders, while others thrive more independently. You may want to rephrase your requests depending on your audience.
But it also applies the other way around; you should align your company’s employee targets with your (new) innovation goals. Objectives on innovation are usually not explicitly defined, but the organization expects (or hopes) its employees will think outside the box and offer ideas that change the organization for the better.
These collaborative and creative behaviors are often not rewarded because they're hard to see. However, it makes sense to review your targets because "for an organization to act upon its members, the formal reward system should positively reinforce desired behavior, not constitute an obstacle to overcome," as correctly stated in the highly celebrated article, "On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B," (1995) by Steven Kerr (PDF).
If the company pays bonuses on current product performance, you’ll have a hard time convincing stakeholders to adopt a new product idea (that might even cannibalize the current one). The better a company aligns their targets to the set innovation direction, the more comfortable people will feel changing their course.
RULE 2: SECURE MANAGEMENT SUPPORT TO MATURE, ASSESS, AND REALIZE IDEAS
Innovation is like a three-way game of Pong between idea-generating employees, decision-making senior executives, and realizing middle management. While I've written about this in-depth in the post "Executing Collaborative Innovation – The Hamburger Style," I want to dive deeper into management support here. After all, management support is an essential prerequisite for successful innovation management.
You want to encourage engagement by getting the C-suite to back your program. You can have one overall patron or champion for each strategic innovation area, as explained above. Having this means the company is behind your innovation efforts but also shows employees that it's okay to spend time on the program.
And then you need middle management support to legitimize the more specific innovation activities. You'll be reaching out for ideas (maybe through "targeted campaigns"), and having the right person behind the question will give your innovators the confidence that the right person will assess and potentially carry out their ideas.
Initial submissions are often not more than hunches, and you need support from experts (and their managers) to improve and validate the ideas. Many organizations use assigned volunteers to help stimulate this development and collaboration, and some create official roles for this task.
For example, Stan Heuvink, Director Innovation Enablement at mapping and location data company HERE Technologies, sources these experts (or moderators) through a formal selection process. Motivated people from any department can apply for these temporary jobs. A job interview follows to confirm their motivation and ability. Once selected, the department manager must approve and then time is officially assigned to moderate ideas for a certain period.
Hand-off for implementation
Getting ideas picked for execution is at a different level in your game of Pong. As mentioned above in the paragraph on Alignment, innovation goals are often vague, while operational KPIs are usually specifically defined and rewarded. And most people – again based on the article by Steven Kerr – will focus on the tasks that are rewarded, resulting in lower or no attention on activities that are not reward. This "behavior by those at the bottom will endanger goal attainment by those at the top," said Kerr.
I regularly see companies asking their "crowd" for radical, disruptive ideas but then rewarding their executing teams for performance on current products and services, which is not sustainable.
For example, during my time as an innovation manager, an employee submitted an idea to change an already established paid subscription service to a free model. The goal was to create further interest in other related under-performing services. Almost everybody saw the value of the idea, but we also agreed it would cannibalize on the current offerings that the executing team was rewarded for. Middle management kept voting against the realization of the idea until there was enough customer request for it (because customer experience was part of this executing team's KPIs). So, make sure to align to the targets of the decision maker(s) you’re pitching to.
"Make sure to align to the targets of the decision maker(s) you’re pitching to."
RULE 3: CONFIRM NEXT STEPS WITH YOUR SPONSOR BEFORE STARTING A CAMPAIGN
Alignment and support will get you visibility, engagement, and ideas, but you'll need full sponsorship to implement those ideas. Begin with the end in mind and know what you'll do with the ideas. Make sure there are business experts to join the online discussion and elaborate on submissions, evaluate ideas, and eventually execute the selected concepts.
Also, settle on a budget upfront for those selected concepts. It doesn't make sense to collect ideas, only to discover there's no funding for them. Have all of this in place for every targeted campaign before you even kick them off. Because targeted campaigns focus on a specific topic and question, you'll be able to identify this upfront. Of course, you might want to adjust this along the way, but, hey, that's what keeps innovation so exciting, right!?
Marcel Broumels, Head of IdeaLab at Innogy, a German-based energy company, shared his experiences on how sponsorship helped create a real impact:
“After launching our program, we instantly decided to bring in support of our company’s CEO; as the sponsor of our biggest campaign. His involvement was crucial to share the need for creativity and proper ideation activities, including finding the best ideas in our business. He was personally interested in the innovation topic as our colleagues knew, and this increased the impact. Later we decided to also get the support of the CHO (Chief Human Resource Officer) as the (financial) sponsor of our department. Having this level of support made it easier to align with other business leaders in receiving their support. Especially when we were in the process of moving ideas through our funnel to implement them, this support appeared to be crucial as at times colleagues needed to be reminded of the priority that innovation had in our company’s culture.”
Marcel’s quote reminded me of an analogy I recently read in a blog post by Mukesh Gupta, director of customer advocacy at SAP India. He states that: "Just like every hero needs a mentor (or a side-kick) who champions the cause of the hero when no one believes in him/her, every good idea needs a champion who can add weight to the idea. [...] If we don’t give our attention to these projects, no one else will give attention to the team. Solving problems in interesting ways is a difficult task by itself, we don’t need to make it even more difficult for the team."
Once you select an idea for realization, make sure there's a clear handover of ownership. Most likely the structured and staged actions for implementation require a different type of control than the fuzzier activities done during ideation. Agree on responsibilities and have one accountable sponsor that ideally can also decide on budget and resources. And then make sure to stay informed as innovation team to keep track of progress and be able to educate the rest of the organization about that.
"Once you select an idea for realization, make sure there's a clear handover of ownership."
KEY TAKEAWAYS (RULES 1-3)
So, we've covered the strategic foundations you need to nail before doing anything else. To recap:
- Align your company strategy and innovation goals to drive quality and acceptance
- Secure management support to mature, assess, and realize ideas
- Confirm next steps with your sponsor before starting a campaign
Editor's Note: Make sure to watch the quick "coffee break webinar" here where Roel answers readers' questions on the first three rules on Alignment, Management Support, and Sponsorship.
The second part of this series is about targeted campaigns, which you can read here. This post covers how to engage as many people as possible and how to get them to think outside the box.