Innovation. Strategy. While not synonyms, the two words go hand in hand. If a company is talking about innovation, the conversation better include how such innovation will help the company achieve its strategic vision. Conversely, any discussion about company strategy should most certainly contain innovation as key ingredient. But is this truly the case? If you walked the halls of your company and randomly asked them to describe the correlation between innovation and strategy, would they be able to come up with an answer?
Historically, my company (a large midwestern electric utility) has been inclined to jump into ideation when we wanted to innovate. From talking to innovation peers inside and outside of the industry, it’s safe to say that we are not alone in this regard. We would take pride in hosting an annual company-wide “Ideathon” to solicit employee ideas. Come One, Come All! We also celebrated the platform we created for the workforce: a 24/7, 365 day-available online suggestion box where any employee could submit any idea at any time. Importantly, through these efforts we learned that our 6,000 employees yearned to innovate. They had lots and lots and lots of ideas to potentially make their job better, their department more effective, and sometimes even lift the company to greater heights. This created quite a big haystack, but the needles were rather challenging to find. Fewer and fewer of the ideas were game-changers. More and more were simply complaints worded in a creative way – descriptions of problems but not really any solutions.
Why was this happening?
As I learned at the University of Notre Dame’s Certified Innovator’s Mentor program (CIMp) and from the related Unified Innovation Methodology, Strategy Alignment is a critical component when framing the opportunity which you are trying to tackle. If you do not develop the appropriate Strategic Intent, your innovation compass will likely be pointing in the wrong direction, or perhaps not in any direction at all.
As more and more innovation team members went through CIMp, we realized that we did not provide any guidance on what we were looking for; our employees, given little direction or strategic areas of focus, were left to their own thoughts of what they considered “innovation”.
Simultaneously, the innovation team became increasingly frustrated with the lack of tangible ideas to prototype and pilot. Employees were turned off by the innovation “process” which usually ended up with their “idea” being politely rejected. And leadership was questioning the value of the innovation program.
We took a hard look at our tool and admitted it needed a complete overhaul. This alone took significant leadership courage. We had to find a new vendor that could develop a product that met our new, strategic needs. Instead of one big wide-open ideathon each year, we decided to have multiple, targeted “ideation campaigns” that align with the various strategic issues facing the company. Not every ideation campaign has to be sent to the entire workforce. We can tailor an ideation campaign for an identified appropriate audience. We also control how long the ideation campaign is open. And we specifically customize the evaluation criteria applied to the employee ideas received in each ideation campaign.
While the launch of the revamped platform is still in its early stages, initial feedback is very positive and quite promising. I admit I was worried that we would be telling our employees where we needed them to innovate, but they were thrilled that they were being asked to help solve the real and important issues facing the company. They are starting to believe that they have real “skin in the game”, that executing the company’s strategy will take everyone, not just the senior executives. We took a chunk of the guesswork out of innovation, and it is appreciated.
There is a time and place for different types of innovation. There is no “silver bullet” solution. We kept the “suggestion box” concept open in the new platform. We don’t want to potentially stifle a game-changing idea from exposure because an employee could not find the appropriate campaign to fit it into. But a larger emphasis is now put on the targeted, strategic campaign approach so that our 6,000 innovators can sharpen their pencils and put their best foot forward to help us solve our strategic business issues. As we evolve to become the utility of the future, we must appropriately and effectively enable and inspire our greatest asset to become the workforce of the future.