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Roel de Vries and Sarah Kelly are the innovation managers for Liberty Global’s innovation program, Spark. In May 2017, they’ll be presenting at the HYPE Innovation Managers Forum in Bonn. In the following interview we asked them to provide a heads-up on their session, and some of the key talking points.

Your talk is about unfuzzying the front end of innovation, how did you arrive on that subject?

We’ve noticed that there is still a large misconception about what innovation really is, and in particular for us, what an innovation program is, and not is. Employees tend to think they can just submit an idea, and people will rally around that idea and then see it implemented.

At the same time, management can sometimes think that you can just ask all employees for the next breakthrough innovation, and ideas will come in fully formed and ready to be implemented. But we see there is a difference between the initial idea, and something which can really be implemented by the business.

The route which an idea must take from submission to implementation, is now becoming more clear for us, and also how we can help to facilitate it. It starts with asking the right questions, and that step requires a lot of work to get right. But after that, guiding the idea through an elaboration phase, teaching idea authors how to shape and pitch their ideas, this all becomes critical if you really want something that the business can make use of. Understanding this path, and the tools you need to use along the way, is the process of unfuzzying the front-end.

Does senior management understand what an innovation program really is?

This can be a challenge. When we speak with other innovation managers, it's not just at Liberty Global, we all see the same thing. But importantly, it’s not just senior management, who needs to understand. The middle management layers are really important here too, they need to be involved to have a successful program. However, they have certain targets to hit, which are based on the current products you have. So how do you make sure that innovation stays top-of-mind when your rating at the end of the year is dependent upon current, not future, products and services?

How have you tackled this problem of awareness at senior management level?

In April 2016, we launched Spark in another region, this time in Puerto Rico. Sarah went along to help with the launch preparations, spending a lot of time explaining what Spark really is, and what is expected from people.

We had meetings with their senior management specifically to explain what they need to do to make Spark successful. They were initially concerned about the employees, and whether they will know how to use the tool, whether they needed training, etc. We said, "don’t worry, this is not the issue, it will be fine. The issue you need to put your energy on is the middle managers." We looked at setting innovation as one of the objectives for the coming year, so that a certain amount of time is spent on innovation and working with the Spark program. This way, we can be sure the support is there from the start.

It turned out to be one of the most successful launches of Spark we’ve seen so far. The idea campaigns are very active, and management has a high level of involvement in them. This physical presence was important at the start, we had to sit down with people and explain the key role of management in all of this, and they got it.

What else helps to convince management to be on board?

Ultimately, you need top-down support if you really want to get management layers fully involved. We are now more bold in sharing the results of the program, and we are now able to share strong financial results - bottom line cost savings - which is very helpful. This really showcases the impact that implemented ideas have had, and this gets attention.

In 2016, we also introduced the MatchBox program (based on Adobe’s Kickbox). It was an offline activity, but it was highly visible to senior management. Perhaps they were a little cautious about it beforehand, but once they saw employees taking ownership for their ideas, and building them out into something really tangible, they really bought into it, understanding it as a way to get good results.

In addition to the main talk in Bonn, we’ll also give a workshop session on the MatchBox program, so we can go deeper into this topic.

Your presentation title implies that the fuzzy front end is something that can be somewhat controlled and tamed, is that the case?

Well, yes and no. You can take the fuzz out of it, but it shouldn’t ever become a waterfall process. We have a standardized idea campaign approach, but every campaign is unique, it has subtle differences, which you need to work with. So we have a clear process which we always follow, but we will take different actions, use different methods, along the way.

We call Spark the Swiss Army Knife for innovation, because it’s like a box for innovation with lots of specific tools inside. We don’t always know up front what tool we will use, but we are quite confident that there is a tool in there which will fit the need.

For idea elaboration, we can do it one way, or another way, we have several options. For the decision making phase, it’s the same, we have a range of options here. So we have flavors of the same process, but it will never be like the back-end of innovation, where you have a project manager and a high degree of certainty on what the outcome will look like. This would actually be counterproductive to innovation at the front-end.

But there absolutely should be a standardized approach to the front end, and some knowledge behind that approach - there should be a good reason why you have structured it in a certain way. The Spark team aims to be the default leaders for collaborative innovation in the company, so that others can use us for their own benefit. We define the process, the methods, and then allow others to make use of our tools and approach.

Download the full Spark Case Study from Liberty Global

How long did it take you to reach the point where you had a fully capable box of tools?

We’ll be ready with that in 2020!

But seriously, it’s an ongoing process, we are always learning, always adding more and refining things. At the Innovation Managers Forum in Amsterdam, we learned so much from the other presenters, we kept saying “hey, we need to do what they're doing, and we should look into this…”. You get a lot of inspiration from seeing what others are doing.

So it’s not a steady state, but I would say that sometime in early 2016 we reached a point where we really had what we needed to work all the way through, from the front-end to the back-end. So you could say it took around 3 years to get to that point.

In the talk, we’ll give more details about the new methods that we’re adding in, but one example is around design. We’re putting designers together with idea authors, to help improve the quality of an idea. A designer can help a lot, even if it’s not a product idea, but a process or service idea. The designer can ask critical questions which help shape the idea, and a well-designed idea is more likely to be appreciated by senior management.

 Watch the video explaining the Spark program:


What are some of the biggest challenges that new innovation programs are likely to encounter?

Setting the strategy of the program, aligning it to the company strategy. This was something we ran into right at the start. In the early days, we basically had a suggestion box, which wasn’t connected to the company goals, and this doesn’t work for a company like us. You need to find ideas which really have an impact on what the business is trying to do, so the campaigns you run should be aligned with the strategic goals of management.
And communication. This is one of the biggest goals in the early phases. You need to ensure everybody is at least aware, and understand why they should be involved. An innovation program is always on-top of the day job for most people, so ultimately it will come down to enthusiasm. Do they feel excited and motivated to take part? But also, they need to know what the innovation program is not meant for, otherwise you can see a lot of wishes rather than real ideas. You have to be diligent in teaching the audience what the program is about.
Luckily, we have high participation in Spark, and a lot of motivation going along with it. But it comes back to how we communicate and how we recognize what people are doing, and how we follow up on the activity. This is a fundamental aspect.
So, it’s two key aspects: you need to generate results, otherwise you remain this funny kind of initiative that isn’t seen as a real profit generator. So start with the end in mind, and go after the ideas that get you there. And then on top of this, communicate relentlessly!
Further reading and webinars on communication:
Webinar: Panel Discussion: Promoting Your Innovation Program
Webinar: How to Define a Communications Strategy for Your Innovation Program
Blog post: Getting Communicatons Right for Collaborative Innovation

Finally, you’ve been to the HYPE Forums many times, what brings you back every year?

We find that speaking at these particular forums, you get a really good response from the audience, and it helps you with building your network of peers. It benefits us greatly, because we end up connecting with people who can help us, by sharing their knowledge and their experience. We also get a lot of inspiration from the other speakers, and come away with a lot of new insights for our program. And finally, it’s a lot of fun, we enjoy it and have a great time!
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Tim Woods

Tim Woods

During his career, which also included a longer stay at HYPE, Tim has been working in the product development as in the marketing sector. With a background in software development, Tim has worked in