Knowing where to start, what model to use, metrics, governance, development, external resources, etc, etc, etc. can be overwhelming for an organization that wants to thrive in an idea economy. Having worked and supported two organizations at the beginning of their journey, I learned a great deal.
This story was written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, The Way of InnovationTM, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
Purpose-based innovation, open innovation, social innovation these are just a small sample of the many intents that large and small organizations interested in entering the innovation space have to consider. Within the past decade studies and articles by noted thought leaders and researchers have suggested that staying relevant is about embracing innovative pursuits and building new capabilities into the organizational underpinnings. Organizational leaders who are receiving this message are left to question…do we stay the course and hope our market share does not degrade or have our business model become irrelevant because of some a new entry into our domain that changes the rules. Though important questions the real problem that most organizations new to the space need to ask is…where do we even begin?
It’s far too easy to get lost in the “innovation” trap, which I will talk more about in the challenges section of this hack. Below are the lessons I have learned over the course of the last few years. Though they may appear as steps I will offer the disclaimer that there is no order. The order is truly dependent on your organizations readiness and tenacity for change.
From my experience the best strategy is to meet leaders where they are and consider the long game instead of rushing. The result of rushing usually entails tremendous resource allocation, misalignment with business goals and a quick washout when people simply stop engaging.
Pick Your Team
Long term your organization would benefit from some form of governance structure that owns the vision, manages the portfolio of innovative efforts, allocates resources, etc. In the context of an organization that is just started to consider innovation the important thought involves getting leaders invested. In my experience some of the key leaders to consider would include your leaders in information technology, marketing, strategy, business development, human resource and financial.
This team should be fairly organic in the beginning. When I first started mentoring it was with the senior vice presidents of marketing and human resources. Eventually after gathering insights and gaining a firmer grasp of the opportunity at our organization, it made sense to expand which meant inviting the senior vice presidents of IT and strategy. At this early stage the different lenses and inputs have supported creating a cognitively diverse work team that is striving to develop the necessary innovation systems. Cadence is also very important. We meet the first Wednesday of every month to break down silos and drive ourselves toward results.
Shift the Conversation
When it comes to innovation, or any form of creative pursuit that involves asking an individual or group to change, there are usually three camps. You have the “what got us here will get us there” camp, then you have the “we are in until it gets real” camp and then the “we are in and what do you need” camp. Truthfully it is really hard to tell what camp someone is in especially the middle group since often you will not know until you make an ask for something.
What my employer has done is create an environment and experience centered around two important frames. What behaviors do I exhibit and actions do I take that could stifle creativity? Second, what can we do as a team if we combined our efforts, challenged our collective whole and produced a commitment to those we serve?
Prior to the first session our most senior leaders meet with the attendees and publicly share the steps they are taking to change their own behavior. They then share their expectations, some of which are predetermined as standards and the remainder crafted by them specifically for their teams. During the second session leaders are asked to play the audience and are expected to listen and learn from an actual associate who had their idea crushed or in some instances taken only to find out later someone else received the recognition. Following each session participants are held accountable by their leader to work on their behaviors and hold to their collective commitment which involves pivoting and a great deal of reflection.
Though still being delivered across the enterprise this new innovation language delivered to our leaders that redefines risk, failure, problem-solving, collaboration, growth and performance is being reinforced internally through leader forums and internal publications. We want our leaders to be immersed in this and often repetition is a powerful tool.
Model What You Expect
Though I do not agree that any of these lessons have any more weight than another, I will say this one is pretty significant. Modeling is fundamentally one of the most important methods to shape anything. It’s hard to convey the importance of wellness when the vending machines are stocked with chips and candy bars. Same holds true when you want people to believe you want to listen, question, experiment, network and associate.
This needs to start at both the the top and frontline of your organization. If your senior leaders say “we need to be innovative but in spaces where there is tolerable risk” then your organization is probably not ready. Same leader makes a similar proclamation and instead talks about his own recent learnings through failure or how certain trends within other industries have created new challenged spaces, then that is something people can get behind.
Though this one is significant it is also difficult because your actions and words carry weight. People will find it difficult to share and collaborate with others if they work for a leader that is not transparent and only seeks ideas from their own department or business unit.
Let’s assume that your organization is in a really good place. Profits are stable, turnover is good, engagement is high, and cash on hand is rock solid so why would you need any guidance from other. Often organizations who are not struggling have difficulty seeking outside expertise to help them craft a strategy or engage in any form of discovery to develop transformational or disruptive concepts.
One approach is to start the request for proposal process at your organization. The process is hopefully rigorous enough to force decisions and allow for self-discovery through research. In my case the experience was rewarding in that I learned so much about our definitive need. It also allowed us to engage with many wonderful thought leaders in the space who challenged our assumptions and orthodoxies.
The greatest lesson came towards the end when a pivot occurred after the realization that our innovation initiative truly needed a more succinct connection to our business. This intentional hiatus has allowed those involved to step back and reframe the challenge. Plus the guidance we have received from those who responded to the RFP has created new partnerships for the organization.
Learn from Others
This can be difficult depending on the culture of your organization as it really can stretch people outside of their comfort zone. Most of the greatest achievements are the result of learning from others whether through their successes or failures. Apple staff and leaders learnings from Xerox PARC later used that knowledge to produce the GUI for Mac OS. Whether you call them innovisits (check out the references below for guidelines on conducting an innovisit) or explorations the intent is the same. Exposure to what others are doing, regardless of whether it is innovative or not, leads to new associations. Within the past few months small teams from my organizations have been tasked with exploring the adjacencies in the pharmaceutical, insurance and even other healthsystems.
The greatest piece of advice I can share with anyone who is encouraging their leaders (or board) to connect with other companies and learn from others, is to use these simple words “we do not know what we do not know”. It forces a person to challenge their existing mental model.
Find a Partner
Organizations beginning the journey are really large organisms, they require a steady supply of food (vendor partners) and rely on all the little cells (people) getting along in harmony. When you start to infuse the notion of innovation your basically your essentially trying to convince a once independent creature to form a symbiotic relationship. This is where infusing a new language and offering supporting evidence come in handy. The words collaboration and co-creation are synonymous with innovation so get used to using them.
I have learned that to make the case you need to have your team (the one I mentioned earlier) take a close look at what capabilities are needed in the new reality. Once you get that figured out then the next step is to be very critical by truly discovering which your organization possesses, which exist and require attention, and which do not exist and make more sense to retrieve from someone else.
When it comes to innovation partnerships, sometimes it is best to explore the existing partnerships your organizations may have. Start with your existing vendors. Your organization may use them for XYZ but perhaps if you ask the right question you can discover that they also offer a wealth of services, products or solutions. A real example I can share involves two large companies that support our medical supply and equipment needs. Just recently we began to partner with both in two completely different ways. One is allowing us to test and prototype their new products while also allowing us to learn from their agile approach. The other company is allowing us to tap into the techniques and systems they developed when they embarked on their innovation journey many years earlier. Both of these partnerships are allowing us to avoid certain pitfalls and barriers while simultaneously supporting our business priorities.
Connect to Something
Contrary to what one may believe the “build it and they will come” approach to innovation typically does not generate the energy or business value one might expect. Within both of the organizations where I supported there needed to be a connection. Initiatives can too quickly become a flavor of the month if the idea contributors do not recognize the value and more importantly do not see the connection back to the business.
At my current employer we connected to a healthcare imperative. Within the healthcare industry there is a great deal of scrutiny being placed on healthsystems to generate more value to the consumer as opposed to generating revenue strictly through volume. Put in plain English instead of waiting for people to get sick, which generates more money for the hospital, the industry is being asked to focus on wellness and keep patients out of the mostly costly inlets into a hospital, emergency rooms. What we ended up doing is focusing our associates, leaders and physicians of this challenge and then connecting our innovation efforts. We began to ask people to consider novel ideas to the challenge instead of short cuts and band aids that often were passed to the consumer.
At my previous employer we decided to connect our innovation campaign to our new company brand that was focused on the consumer. The new brand campaign presented associates with challenges centered on the customer, including how we could discover their unmet need and provided a new system to capture, discuss and share ideas that was developed entirely internally.
Connecting to something is about making both a head and heart connection with your potential idea contributors. It has to elicit a person’s empathy while coming across as logical so that it is grounded in the possible.
There is no recipe or “secret sauce” to innovation. For my company the lessons above have not hindered our aspirations they have allowed us to enjoy the journey instead of rushing through it. We have started to celebrate quick wins and modify existing management systems to bring the entire organization along as part of the change. The biggest task is to change the mindset of thousands of people who hold the perception that risk is not tolerated and failure is never an option.
Sustaining change is the obvious challenge faced by any company interested in pursuing innovation. The learning lessons above are not unique to a specific industry or domain. Some of the real challenges include:
- Trying to accomplish too much too quickly. There is a great quote I heard “aim small to miss small.
- Not discussing the systems that will need to be reconditioned or created to achieve the vision.
- Not involving the front-line from the very beginning.
- Communicating messages that lack substance and do not reflect the intent. Creates a “flavor of the month” perception which is difficult to come back from.
- Putting together the wrong team. Passion and actions are the primary criteria. If representatives are there for the praise and spotlight… find a new team.
- Pivoting when it is too late. Create indicators that provide an indication that a pivot may need to occur.
- Lack of context and definition for the organization. Sometimes moving only the small rocks makes it difficult to go back and tackle the big ones. An organization not prepared to what innovation means to them will find it hard to propel ideas when they all matter to someone.
iVia, The Way of Innovation™, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
Wake Up and Smell the Innovation!: Stirring Up a Return on Imagination Paperback
Philip A. Newbold (Author), Diane Serbin Stover (2013)
Moises Norena (2013). Change the Systems, Free the People. Retrieved from