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Do corporate innovation programs really work? Why is measuring and proving the value proposition of Innovation Teams and Programs often hard, despite everyone agreeing that Innovation is the key?

Many years back on a lazy and cozy winter afternoon, a few of the handpicked individuals from our HR Technology team were summoned to assemble in the second-floor corner office, which was notoriously famous for ‘something big is cooking up’. The top brass on the campus showed up, suddenly and unexpectedly without the routine pomp and circumstance. We were surprised to see the subtlety and even more surprised when he said, “We are going to lay off folks, get ready with your HR tools”.

Despite hearing the sad news, there was a moment of relief in the room, because we knew we were all officially spared. Amidst pizza, snacks, beverages, and now additional stakeholders coming into the room, the conversation started for WHO and WHEN. Then, the very first nomination we heard was, why don’t we start with easy choices like our Corporate Innovation Program? Uh oh!

In this third article of the series, “Making Innovation Ordinary,” let’s explore a few simple techniques on how to transform your Innovation programs strategically and successfully, and to enable your innovation teams to survive not only the seasonal weather but thrive to earn a ticket to join the elite club. We should put an end to the charade of mandating innovation teams to, again and again, prove why they should continue to not only exist but lead the pack. Join me.

Go Alone to Go Fast, Go Together to Go Far

There’s an often-quoted proverb that says “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”. Interestingly and challengingly, innovation teams should go far, and quickly. Otherwise, your existence becomes an open-ended question mark and your survival can be anyone’s guess.

I would say the simple and straight forward solution for this is to understand the key stakeholders and analyze, identify, and internalize what motivates them to become your promoters/cheerleaders. Once you find out the answers, you should position your innovation program to set the clarity and execute it to specifically address the ‘what’s in it for me’ prompts.

Here I outline the major actors in a typical enterprise environment and what motivates them to support you. Feel free to adjust this blueprint based on your organization setup, culture, etc.

All Starts with a Strategy

The first prerequisite of any innovation portfolio is that there is an actual Innovation Strategy. What is promoted inside the company as a strategy is often no more than an empty slogan like “Be the most innovative” or “Innovation starts with us?”.

A viable strategy will tell you:

  1. How the program will inspire everyone to participate
  2. Which projects belong in the portfolio and which do not
  3. How the teams will be coached and enabled to recognize and jump on a small spark to a good idea and then guided to a viable innovation.

Simply put, what does your company require from innovation in order to execute on its vision?

This requires good communication between innovation managers and senior management. Senior managers should be actively involved in the development of the innovation-portfolio approach to help innovation departments not only fund projects to some level of success, but to prevent them from being orphaned when no one from the C-suite is interested in adopting the project into the core business.

The process of developing a portfolio approach is more important than the final portfolio itself – a company may start with a clear portfolio strategy and only discover during execution a better, emergent strategy that requires a pivot. Remember, how a game developer “Tiny Speck” pivoted itself to be the most successful enterprise messaging platform “Slack”? It is during this iterative portfolio management process that innovation managers and executives discover the insight needed to continuously improve their company’s innovation potential.

Getting Your Narrative Right

When my son was young, I tried to reason with him about the existence of unicorns during his bedtime stories. I lost my case every single time to agree with him that they do exist, so he could go to sleep as the winner. When I took on the role of Innovation Program Manager for the first time, I once again lost to my boss agreeing to implement our unicorn Innovation Program to yield breakthrough ideas to produce financial returns immediately. Yes, I failed miserably in hitting that ill-conceived mark. But, I was blessed that the same boss was ready to bear the collective responsibility and graciousness of awarding me another go to do it right and successfully.

The lesson I learned from that experience was that you should set the right clarity, realistic expectations, and guiding metrics for what this program is about, and what it is not about from the get-go. Instead of boiling the ocean, pilot the program with an innovation-friendly internal organization, showcase the results and success stories, work your way to expanding it to the whole company in stages. You should decide upfront on the guiding metrics that you will use to track progress for your own and to demonstrate the program’s impact on your stakeholders in order to enjoy their continued and even fortified support.

Speaking of metrics, I have seen most innovation teams focus on activity metrics on one side and the impact metrics on the other side. The best metrics are specific to your company and culture, where you are in your innovation journey, and where you want to take it in x months. I have outlined the baseline we use here at Innovation Minds for you to have a reference.

Antibodies at Work

Two fitting terms have made their way into the business vernacular where innovation is concerned, “Innovation Antibodies” and “Innovation Theater.” Both can be navigable tendencies that innovation teams learn to recognize, seek out, and manage with finesse seeking a win-win. Being aware of who they are and what resistance may exist is really the best defense.

“Innovation Antibodies” are typically corporate departments that see new ideas coming from another part of the business as risk elements that need to be managed and/or mitigated. They can also be seen as individuals that persistently work to kill off ideas based on their own resistance to change and comfort with the status quo. Actually, it’s a much less sinister situation. The so-called nay-sayers are a necessary check and balance. They usually serve in roles that have responsibility for protecting their organizations from assuming the costly risk of misaligned decisions. Sometimes they’re motivated by short-term results over longer-term transformation opportunities. They are usually skeptical by nature.

That said, others are wise to understand these individuals can be the single most important lever for sustained relevance. These are the cross-functional partners to sit down with right up front, to evaporate political tar pits before they become problems. They require innovation teams to think about opening the door to persistent collaboration between functional teams. Lacking internal partners is much worse than working to gain the trust and buy-in from an “Innovation Antibody.”

“Innovation Theater,” conversely, describes a false display of enthusiasm and early-stage gung-ho to “look” innovative to various stakeholders. This ends up lacking the sincerity and investment to move the needle in any real way. We should move beyond innovation theatre – beyond what feels good – and into true innovation competency. Your overall innovation strategy should help you with that.

Real Job of Innovation Teams

The average Fortune 500 company has over 50,000 employees. Yet only a very tiny percent of them believe innovation is part of their jobs. On the other side, the average innovation program team size is 2 to 3 people, provided the companies have designated or dedicated innovation teams. These miniature innovation teams along with their tiny population of employees who believe in innovation will not be able to sufficiently deliver the disruptive and/or incremental innovations themselves. The question is, how can a large company be innovative when the vast majority of employees are waiting for someone else to innovate? The role of the innovation teams is not to create and build ideas themselves. It would be very minimal in terms of impact and also will send a wrong signal that there is a team to take care of innovation and it does not have to be everyone’s business. Always keep in mind, you should be the enabler to multiply the impact, not the just doer yourselves.

The topmost focus of any corporate innovation program is to tap into the collective wisdom by inspiring everyone in the organization to feel and act as if ‘innovation is part of the job’, and enabling them to be innovative and agile. You may start or reboot the journey with a few focused teams, and organically expand the scope to overall organization in stages by showcasing consistent and continuous wins along the way.

In our future articles, we will continue to explore techniques and tools to make Innovation uncomplicated and reasonable to master, in the meantime, the one thing Innovation teams should never lose focus on is to understand and execute on “what does your company require from your innovation team in order to execute on its vision”.

All the best.