Talking about Innovation and doing Innovation are different things. Just as teaching innovation around made up problems (like designing a new kitchen) is vastly different than working on real world problems. As the new de facto executive innovation leader of a 45-year-old quasi-governmental finance organization, my challenge was to help us figure out how to communicate what was happening around innovation to our staff members and our Board in a unique, easily understandable way. So, we built a Wall. . . a Wall of Innovation.
I joined our organization as General Counsel and a member of the Executive Team in 2016, after many years as an entrepreneur and adviser to early stage companies. It had been a very long time since I had worked with an organization larger than 100 people and although I had been a lawyer for many years, my career was diverse with positions in technology, marketing and sales, real estate development and law. I had never spent more than 10 years in any one organization and now my task was to help drive innovation in a company where many employees were hitting their 20 to 30-year anniversaries. Innovation was not something on the top of everyone’s minds.
Approaching innovation in a quasi-governmental organization required a different approach than in a start-up or early stage company. While principles like Minimum Viable Product, Pivoting and Business Model Generation espoused by Eric Ries, Steve Blank and Alex Osterwalder were certainly applicable to our business, it was difficult to see how to translate those concepts in ways our staff would understand and more importantly, use. Enter Notre Dame’s Certified Innovation Mentor Program. It was clear to me that I needed a better understanding of how to drive innovation in larger, more established organizations; how to translate many of the startup tools I had been working with for years into language that our staff could embrace and use in their day-to-day work.
Working with a core Innovation Team comprised of Directors and Staff from our Research and Strategy group and Human Resources, we developed an Innovation Framework designed to embed innovation into our corporate culture. We tried to Innovate Innovation by redefining our Innovation definition to differentiate our new approach from the lean Six Sigma “continuous improvement” programs we had done in the past, and started training everyone in the art and science of business innovation, which continues today.
We were pleased with the early results. Using Design Thinking techniques, we developed an approach towards innovating new product ideas, solving challenging problems and entering new markets. Cross-divisional teams were successful in developing concepts and creating prototypes and we felt we were making progress. But as we introduced a form of the Unifying Innovation Methodology™ to our staff as our new innovation framework; building on the design thinking concepts that were used by the initial teams, we realized that connecting our front line staff to what we were actually doing in the organization was going to be a critical component.
We had spent a lot of time connecting people with the WHY of innovation, and spent time training on the HOW of innovation, but people outside the core project teams weren’t really connected to WHAT we were doing around innovation – what specific projects were underway and what the status of those projects was on the path to launch. It seemed that many early innovation ideas were coming from the top down; from executives and directors instead of from the front-line staff up. Our front-line employees worked day-to-day in the trenches and understood what our customers and business partners needed better than anyone else but seemed reluctant to make innovation suggestions. Employee engagement around innovation became an important threshold for us.
We already had an employee suggestion program; our Idea Box where employees could make anonymous suggestions for improvement. But few of these ideas could be considered “innovative” and many ideas were disconnected from our corporate strategy; ideas were submitted based on employees’ inspirations and wishes, not necessarily tied to our primary strategic goals. And the fact they were anonymous meant that most ideas were submitted in the context of “Here’s an idea for somebody else to execute;” not showing the ownership of innovation we were looking for from staff.
What we needed was an Innovation Marketplace – a place where ideas could be collected from all levels of the organization; where good ideas were available for collaboration; where everyone could see the progress of the ideas from inception, through Frame, Discover, Ideate, Develop and Launch. A place where everyone could see the results of our innovation efforts and which, hopefully, would motivate employees through public recognition of ideas and a clear understanding of how those ideas move through the framework from Frame to Launch.
So . . . we built a Wall. Based on the Unifying Innovation Methodology™ and principles of Design Thinking, our Innovation Wall is located strategically across from one of our project innovation rooms, between our Board Room, CEO’s office and the employee lunch room. Every day employees walk by the Innovation Wall on their way to and from lunch or meetings and all ideas are available for everyone to see.
[Innovation Wall Prototype]
As a “canvas for the imagination,” ideas start as initial thoughts on the left and move across and around the Wall on magnetic tiles where the ideas may change as a result of progress through the innovation methodology. In some cases, more fully developed ideas have jumped right to Discover or Ideation; others stay outside until they attract more collaborators or move into Frame after more questions about the idea are answered. Although our Innovation Wall has only been active for about a month, we are learning a lot. Some people are afraid to post an idea. They liked the anonymous safety of the Idea Box. They worry that their idea might not be good enough. Or that it won’t go anywhere. Or that by claiming the idea they will have to be the ones to drive it and are too busy. Managers worry about ideas they have already dismissed showing up on the Innovation Wall as a potential challenge or a distraction from other work. There is still a lot of fear around the process; but I’m confident we will work it through.
As we develop the Innovation Framework at our company, we will continue training on each aspect of the Innovation Process with deep dives into Framing, Customer Discovery, Prototype Development and Business Model Canvas. We will celebrate those ideas that make it to Launch and learn from those that don’t. We will figure out when an idea needs corporate project management and when ideas can bubble up on their own and we will figure out how to measure the success of our innovation efforts over time.
[Innovation Wall in Action]
Our vision is that the Innovation Wall will encourage a Culture of Innovation where employees can be honest and open, sharing ideas and exploring initiatives without fear of retribution. Where new employees will see us as an organization that is open and approachable to new ideas. Where long term employees will grow to understand our Innovation Process and use it in their day-to day work and where everyone will clearly see where new ideas come from in the organization. We hope that when all employees can see they are influencing the direction of our business, they will be even more motivated to continue to share ideas, collaborate towards success of those ideas and encourage productivity of other employees.