Keep this in mind when planning an innovation program

In search of longterm innovation capabilities. By Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

Innovation programs: Initiatives to funnel new ideas inside organisations and scale them to fully implemented business models.

In theory they are set of modules, assembled after management objectives. In practice, innovation programs turn out to be anything but easy to maintain and fully unexpected in their shape. Because their outcomes are not only defined by system but also by people.

Nevertheless, midsize to large companies run them for legitimate reasons: In order to reinforce competitive advantage and increase corporate value.

This article shares four (out of a thousand) important learnings when it comes to functioning innovation processes.

1. Corporate culture sets a starting point

Innovation programs can play the role of selective reinforcements, such as internal Hackathons, or of progressive research and development pilots, as intended with Intrapreneurship programs or Innovation Labs.

What I often observe is this: The decision for the type of innovation program is made based on assumptions. If e.g. asked why specifically a Lab could solve the problems of a company, the answers are: ‘Competitors are threatening our business, some of them are succesfully running Labs’, ‘we need a group which independently researches on disruptive technologies for our business’, and also ‘we need better media coverage on our innovation activities’.

Pain points of the same company might look like this: ‘We found that 45% of our employees are excluded by our companies innovation activities’, ‘The average satisfaction rate of our clients decreased by 10% within the last two years’, or ‘we recived the insight that an employee, known for her highly entrepreneurial performance is frequently struggling to find the right supporters for her projects’.

Decisions based on data you gathered about the companies status quo instead of assumptions will help you to find out what you really need in order to boost your innovation processes. There are several techniques, including employee surveys, to measure and filter pain points of your innovation performance. An innovation strategy helps you to set the right focus for your analysis. Start with a measurable goal and let your assumptions be proved by practice. This can be supported by methodologies like OKRs or an Agile Strategy Map.

Internal factors which are responsible for a companies (innovation) performance are a result of the predominant corporate culture. Culture co-defines the innovation-readiness of your business.

Innovation-ready company cultures mostly inherent two characteristics: 1. Employees are faster in recognizing opportunity windows, 2. The company offers suitable, fast mechanisms to realise their ideas.

1. and 2. are part of a whole set of mutually conditional factors, as a strongly communicated and understood vision and goals, the fact that peers saw each other being supported, a self-improving information flow backed by a digital infrastructure which allows transparent and decentralised knowledge share, empowered teams, and more. Many of them can be found in theories based on the Agile Manifesto. Innovation programs are a chance to deeply influence a highly complex organisation with agile processes.

Four culture types in the competing values framework. Based on Cameron/Quinn.

The same research on innovation performance will provide you with data about your corporate culture. Through measurable criteria (e.g. decision-making, information liquidity, leadership) you will be able to classify your corporate culture and link it to innovation potential. One example on how to classify culture is offered by the Quinn Model.

As a result, the degree of guidance and differentiation your innovation program needs in order to impact your business, largely depends on the status quo of your corporate culture (including its enabling preconditions and management).

2. New order leads to change

An innovation program is expected to challenge the companies status quo. The more similar the program conditions are to the general conditions at the company, the harder it will be for program participants to change their behaviour when developing solutions.

Teams in the innovation program ideally are able to work differently, without feeling too alienated by the rest of the company. Collaboration between teams across the firm is required to successfully upgrade the existing company portfolio. Before acquiring completely new teams, allow motivated employees of the existing organisation to be part of the program right from the start. Gain (not replace) relevant knowledge and skills via the support of external experts, sponsor users and coaches. As a win-win, team members will not only profit from former company experience but also be able to sustainably impact the very core of the organisation.

These following steps help you to plan a more individualised environment for your companies innovation program: Analyse well-established development practices within your firm, compare them with successful examples in the market, consult experts (e.g. Business Designer) and look out for additional innovation methodologies (e.g. Service Design, Design Thinking, Sprint, Growth Hacking methods). Then adopt and adjust your companies known working practices iteratively until a suitable work environment for innovation is achieved.

The advantage of a successive introduction to new methods and practices to the program will give stakeholders, including participants, the chance to choose within, adapt and test the new environment with more time. Regular feedback loops with members and reporting rounds with program sponsors help to improve the system strategy contiuously.

3. Outcomes cannot be enforced

… but their quality and quantity can be influenced.

Mentors might know that feeling of looking at a team, a person, their idea, their business model and exactly knowing how to lead them towards a — means the mentors — right solution. But the key of being innovative with every new iteration lies in trying, failing and learning by oneself. Why? Because an innovative solution is nothing else than a smartly solved problem. It is something we can learn. So in order to nurture our problem solving skills, we need a sense of freedom when trying out things.

The system you choose for your program defines the grade of effectiveness and impact projects can have. The more you facilitate towards autonomy, confidence, and evidence-based decisions amongst your staff, the more likely it leads to a self-regulatory infrastructure.

For instance: Instead of having a dedicated jury review tons of unknown ideas, teams should have the chance to independently rate and refine their approaches by reaching out to experts, potential users and draw on research inside and outside the company from a very early stage onwards. This prevents the process from slowing down just right at the start.

Eventually, bad ideas, team execution or timing will lead to death of the project — but at least the team learned why. On top of that, let teams plan and document open post mortems, so that learnings can be shared and feedbacked by program participants and beyond.

4. Innovation ≠ Entrepreneurship

Getting feasibility, viability and desirebility together is a challange for individuals with every new project and team setup they are facing. If your program teams take user-centricity serious, are multi-disciplinary, supported in their independency, and are aware of their benefits, a lot is done to grow innovative practices.

If the goal is to impact the business, implementation into existing structures, processes and rules is key. As experienced many times, it is one of the hardest parts. A good strategy prepares respective managers and their staff right after a program team knows were the implementation could potantially take place, so that the teams on both sides start to get to know each other.

Building and scaling a project inside an organisation setup not only requires members who are good at coming up with ideas (Innovators) but also the ones who know the structures and hidden rules, can assess relevance, have valuable connections and can position unusual attempts within the organisation (Entrepreneurs). They own important abilities to support implementation. By continuously detecting and including entrepreneurs, your program teams have higher chances of realising and scaling their solutions.

Innovators — those who invent new technology, product, service or processes; and Entrepreneurs — those who’ve figured out how to get innovation adopted and delivered through the existing company/agency procedures and processes. (Steve Blank)

Your innovation program can act as a platform to connect innovators with entrepreneurs, while offering them a set of working methods to collaborate. By teaching participants how to identify the two types, they are better equipped when deciding for a team.

Worth noticing are those employees who combine both capabilities in one person, as they are more likely to progress quickly. Your program setup can provide them and other highly experienced teams with a fast lane.