Not all corporate innovation programs go well - sometimes they crash and burn, and sometimes they slowly degrade until they fall off the radar. As an innovation manager, you don’t want to see this happen, and ultimately you are in the driver's seat when it comes to taking action to steer the program on track, others are unlikely to do it. In a recent webinar, my colleague Khattab Al-Ali, looked at ways to turn around a failing program, and also ensure new programs are set up to avoid failure.
What does a failing program look like?
A client from Switzerland provided an example. They launched their first campaign to great fanfare, and received high engagement levels, but participation dramatically dropped off the chart on subsequent campaigns, leaving the innovation team scratching their heads.
The problem: the first campaign is always highly engaged because it’s new and people want to see what the fuss is about. But when they realize it lacks meaning, and relation to their job, then they quickly disengage. To turn it around, they worked with HYPE on three aspects:
- Find local sponsors, because the sponsors so far had been too remote from the shop floor. Instead local sponsors were found who had an existing level of trust for getting things done.
- Targeted idea campaigns on local problems. The early campaigns were about high level strategic issues, but regular employees didn’t see the impact on their work. New campaigns focused on problems that needed solving in operations.
- Create a rigorous communications plan that focused on showing progress, as opposed to just promoting new campaigns. This was to demonstrate that ideas were being implemented, and to build trust with the audience.
(A program in decline, then on the ascendency after innovation manager action)
If these steps were not taken, the innovation program would have stagnated for some further time, but eventually died out because of lack of belief in the process, and sponsors not getting any value from the output. It’s important therefore, to look at your metrics, interpret them, and if needed, act quickly to ensure a program doesn’t die.
There are four major aspects of a program where you can look for signs of problems: Technology, Strategy, Communication, and Execution. Let’s dive into each to get some examples.
Providing you have selected a good platform tool, and you don’t have infrastructure issues that make the system slow, unsecure, and so on, then the major technology issue comes down to access barriers, in various different flavors:
- Complicated log-in procedures. Ensure single-sign-on is in place, because most users dislike having another password to remember. If possible have short URLs people can remember, and use QR codes for specific campaigns on promotional materials. If it’s not easy to find, and easy to access, you’ll immediate isolate a large proportion of users who don’t have oodles of enthusiasm to get over these barriers and get in. Conduct a usability test to see how easy it is for people to access for the first time.
- Non-intuitive user interface. For the end-user, it needs to be simple, so turn off unnecessary features, keep the configurable options to a minimum, and focus on the key jobs to be done. Having a consistent branding and layout to corporate intranets can also help with familiarization.
- Not the right tools or functionalities available. Important for stakeholders and reviewers. If a stakeholder doesn’t see the measurements or analytics they need, they may disengage - they need to feel empowered by the tool, and get the data they need with ease. Review teams have a critical job, and one of the most time consuming, and thus need the tool to fully support them and avoid wasting time. If these two groups don’t get what they need, they may passively resist the process. Talking to them face to face is important, understand where the gaps are, and even run a campaign with them to discover underlying issues.
- No mobile or terminal access. A frequent issue at companies with blue collar workers, often without their own company computer or phone. How easy is it for them to get access the platform? Do they have a terminal available, or can they use their own mobile devices? A simple usability test will quickly show you if you’re isolating this group of contributors. Try to appoint local administrators to help on the ground, and even accept ideas on paper to be uploaded.
Strategy is all about alignment. An corporate innovation platform cannot exist in isolation and thrive, it must connect and engage with different levels of the organization, and it must seek to add value to each one. Here’s three typical scenarios:
- No proper alignment to business strategy. Do you have targets for your program? You should, and ideally they should be linked directly to the targets of the company. If your activities are impacting directly on the top level goals, then you are more likely to find sponsorship, and gain momentum when results come in.
- Don’t be too ambitious. Tempting to begin with big strategic game changing campaigns, but to build trust it’s often best to start tactically, focusing on operational challenges. Solving these gains attention, winning over sponsors, and helping to prove the process works.
- Targets need to be clear and transparent. So you have targets, but are they visible to everyone? It should be clear in the platform, so people know that a particular campaign sits under a strategic area, and at any time people can ask what is happening under each strategic area.
- Middle management blocks. Possibly the most important group of people to win over, due to their role of controlling resources, and being tightly aligned to targets. If they feel left out from the start, they are likely to passively or actively ignore your initiatives, and thereby spread skepticism among their troops. Align with their targets, provide constant communications to them, and show them ‘what’s in it for them’. If they feel part of the process, and you’re helping them hit their goals, they will advocates rather than blockers.
- Missing sponsorship. In some cases, there simply isn’t any sponsorship in place, which makes it very tough to provide credibility to the participants, and your program could resemble a hollow idea dropbox. Similarly, if you have a sponsor, but they don’t have resources or budget to implement anything, you could be in real trouble when you don’t implement good ideas. Simply put, don’t run a campaign where there is no backing in place for implementation.
To communicate effectively, you need a plan in place to handle different channels, different levels, and different groups of people. Ultimately, your goal is to build a sense of belief, and a sense of momentum, around the whole process. The online platform is the visible record of a change happening throughout the organization, and your job is to craft the message of this change.
- Incomplete messaging. Why should anybody participate? Do they have a good reason to do so? Firstly, the business context needs to be outlined, and how the activities fit. I may like the sound of this new platform, but if I submit my idea, what will you do with it? Furthermore, you need to highlight the behaviors you want to drive. If you only promote ‘ideation’ then you may suffer on collaboration. Instead, promote commenting heavily, calling out good examples, because commenting makes ideas richer, and more likely to be implemented.
- No belief in the program. Are you sharing success stories? Sometime great stuff is happening, but most people just don’t know about it. Over-communicate the successes, and highlight the individuals involved; if other regular people are making things happen, then it’s possible for me too.
- Undervaluing the importance of tackling blockers. You cannot handle all the objections yourself. You need an army of change agents. Start work on an innovation advocates network, communicate with them frequently, inform them what’s happening, and what’s coming. Ask them to get out in the community and spread the message, and tackle objections when they arise. Loop back, share stories, and help the network grow.
- Wrong communication tactics for the audience. Do you know the makeup of your audience? Do you have more skeptics than enthusiasts? Depending on how the audience breaks down, you need to tailor your communications differently. Use the 5 stacks approach to understanding your audience before drawing up the communication plan (read more in this post).
A successful innovation program goes from end-to-end, but the step between idea generation and idea implementation is where many organizations struggle. The innovation manager must shape the process, and constantly be looking for gaps, and finding ways to keep the front and back end of innovation smoothly connected.
- Incorrect campaign execution. A campaign needs attention, and if you’re not monitoring it actively it the idea quality could suffer, and participation could drop. Analyse the numbers, get the feedback, and if needed rephrase the campaign question to make it clearer. Monitor the ratio of comments to ideas, and if too low (below 3:1), focus on driving collaboration. If participation is dropping, get a compelling reminder email sent out.
- Lack of resources. Are you generating good ideas and concepts, but not able to implement fast enough? Consider a plan for local innovation teams who can help implement ideas. Seek more budget for the central innovation team, and ensure it’s staffed according to need and opportunity of the innovation portfolio.
- No campaign plan in place. Don’t run more campaigns than you can handle, and ensure the mix of campaigns is right (some local and tactical, some global and strategic). Respect the diversity and needs of your local audiences, who may need to run a campaign in a local language to get effective collaboration.
- Process bottlenecks. Evaluation teams need to be trained, and they need to be aligned to subject matter of the campaign. Furthermore, evaluation teams often struggle with time allocation for the work - help them get the time to do it properly, and keep an eye on the process. A slow evaluation phase can create problems with audience follow-up. Also, ensure the right evaluation tools are being used, in some cases you’ll need to quickly triage ideas first, then go deeper in a second round; sometimes a pairwise review is the faster mechanism. Support the evaluation team by looking at the nature and volume of ideas, and plan the steps and tools accordingly.
To learn more about keeping your program in a healthy state, watch the full webinar here: