14 Ways to Boost Innovation
How the most successful organizations are encouraging innovation and integrating it in their corporate cultures.
People are arguably the main asset in most companies (startups and Fortune 100 companies alike). They create value by their ability to innovate, often without following a formal process.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with multiple successful companies of all sizes. They kept innovating and adjusting their course in different ways to dominate their markets. I gleaned 14 shortcuts along the way to systematically bolster innovation:
1. Start with Design Thinking
Design thinking is a set of processes to creatively solve problems. Design thinking has a human-centered core, by encouraging organizations to focus on the people they are creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.
One path to accelerate the adoption of design thinking into an organization is to select and use a set of tested methodologies. For example, GV (originally known as Google Venture) has successfully used their Design Thinking framework at portfolio companies and shared their knowledge.
The Sprint book: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days explains their approach. It is organized chronologically with daily activities and step-by-step tasks to get to an end product or at least a prototype. GV has funded 500+ companies, including Medium, Uber, Jet, Nest, and Lemonade. The GV site has useful examples and case studies to supplement the book written by authors Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz.
Takeaway: leverage and adapt demonstrated methodologies from the most successful companies.
2. Expand to UX and Design at large
The Interaction Design Foundation offers unlimited training with an inexpensive membership ($16/month paid yearly). They also have a large repository of free resources and discounted tools which can be useful in any design thinking journeys. Forbes described the offering as an “Ivy League level education in UX, Product Design or Human-Computer Interaction”.
Takeaway: invest in training with a high ROI and seek constant learning opportunities to sharpen internal innovation skillsets.
3. Rely on Rapid and Digital Prototyping
The history of rapid prototyping originates from topography and photo sculpture, all the way back to 1860. The purpose of building prototypes is to save time and pre-determine issues to solve them without building a full-scale model. Nowadays it means wire-framing a website or an application, without writing tons of code and rewriting again and again based on peer reviews, user testing, or executive feedback.
Prototypes can consist of drawing on a piece of paper, a photoshop rendering, a work product created with specialized software, or interactive PowerPoint slides with links replicating the navigation of a website.
The book Beyond The Prototype: A roadmap for navigating the fuzzy area between ideas and outcomes is a nice follow up to the Sprint book. It focuses on the process of going from a prototype to a final product.
Takeaway: expand knowledge beyond the basics to increase impact and improve outcomes.
4. Pivot but re-purpose
Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup and The Startup Way, best describes the concept of pivoting. You built it and they did not come? You keep purchasing ads and redirecting from all social media sites but user growth or profitability remains way below target? Maybe it is time to pivot by redefining the purpose and redirecting resources. Ideally, anything built to date can be re-purposed so a pivot does not become a costly reset.
A team can keep hitting goalposts but sometimes it makes sense to revisit the approach or even the project’s purpose as the environment changes, ideally as part of an agile-driven delivery model, to increase the chances of success.
Takeaway: innovation is not always a straight line from ideation to Go Live. Sometimes you have to change course to ensure success.
5. Build an Intellectual Property Library
Most technology projects do not have to start from a blank canvas. Leveraging existing assets, third parties, and open-source resources are key. We are past the old choice between buying and building because we can rent technology (SaaS) or re-use existing assets such as lines of codes, API connections, or solutions from the public domain. The components of a solution should be saved and organized so that other solutions can leverage them.
Takeaway: re-use and recycle code, intellectual property, and content to innovate faster.
6. Plan well to succeed
Encouraging teams to “Fail often and fast” is probably the worst way to kick off any innovation initiatives. Of course, failure or setbacks can be a learning opportunity but it is never a required step. Focusing on securing early wins instead, thoroughly investigating and analyzing the market to build a detailed, vetted product roadmap can diminish risk and pave the way to success.
Some large organizations, well-funded startups, or ill-advised enterprises practice the “spray and pray” approach to projects, which consists of funding many or all projects, hoping that some will yield some results. The pitfall is that it unnecessarily wastes resources and create an allocation problem with what is remaining. With proper planning and vetting, organizations should focus on their top projects and leave the others in the pipeline. It is especially true with strategic innovation projects requiring capital expenditures and expensive talent.
One key to reducing risk is to ensure executive sponsorship, throughout the project and to gather feedback (from the team and friendly clients). Executives can bring clarity and confirm the course. The team will know best what is feasible and what risks exist. Clients will confirm the need and assumptions.
Takeaway: failing to plan is planning to fail. Too many innovation projects focus on speed or delivery goals but skip the initial analysis.
7. Seek the right Talent
Not all individuals strive in a startup or an innovation lab environment but many seek the cool factor, especially the “try everything”, “learn a ton” and “experience exponential growth” aspects. It is critical to assess potential fit and resourcefulness during the interview process by asking behavioral questions on specific scenarios.
Seeking experienced talent, including the right advisors, board members, or executive sponsors will help drive results, save time, and prevent costly mistakes. It some cases it can prove helpful to bring a facilitator to train-the-trainer and lead the first design sprint or shape the team.
Takeaway: cultural fit is critical to building high performing and innovative teams.
8. Set clear objectives and align incentives
Any issues with economic alignment can impair business continuity and success. It can be problematic in different ways:
On one end of the spectrum, if contributors or teams do not have any incentives to stay or perform, they might reassess their options, depart, get poached and progressively weaken the team left behind, impacting projects.
On the other end, some companies overdid it, paying large bonuses, triggering large payouts early on, or granting shares automatically (thinking of Waymo at Google for example). Again team members keep assessing their options and might leave if they have enough to retire, fund their own company, or are not 100% passionate about the mission.
One way to drive results is to use OKRs (Objective / Key results), a methodology in use at Google, and described in a book from John Doer: Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs.
Building a fair culture with the right incentives (financial and intellectual) and retained the top-performing talent are critical to keeping innovation projects on the right track.
Takeaway: fair rewards and clear goals increase the overall performance of any organization, especially when it comes to generating new ideas.
10. Reward to encourage
Some companies pay bonuses to employees each time they apply for a patent. Employees get to keep the patent in their name, become more visible, and contribute to innovation. Companies benefit from having new intellectual property added to their portfolio, as well as motivated employees who want to innovate.
Of course, some of those patents are not applicable right away to an on-going project but it is still overall beneficial for a company to attract the talent interested in seeking new patents.
A small group of companies offers full tuition reimbursement. That can be a very powerful tool to retain employees and build up skills. It also allows for workers-students to bring back fresh knowledge into the company and innovate.
Takeaway: some rewards do not belong in a contract, a bonus plan, a negotiation, or a pre-determined achievement. Rewarding team members to encourage them or acknowledge an accomplishment will foster wanted behaviors.
11. Share progress transparently
Many have experienced this scenario where the project team demos the solution they have spent months building. Executives seem taken aback and keep asking questions, seemingly unaligned with the outcomes presented.
One way to prevent similar issues is to keep all stakeholders in the loop or at least updated regularly. Inviting them to recurring meetings is optional or sharing project updates can be helpful. Having regular demo days open to all can be useful as well. Sharing information upstream and downstream to maintain a collaborative and transparent environment can be very beneficial to innovation and avoid a lot of pivoting down the road by sharing information throughout.
Having regular check-ins with sponsors is helpful too. Do they agree with the direction? Do they have any tweaks or feedback they would like to share?
Demo days (or much shorter sessions) work great to show and tell. There is also a risk that written updates mislead the recipients as they imagine a different solution than what is being built.
Takeaway: over-communicating can prevent a lot of damage and can keep initiatives on track, ensuring support from leadership.
12. Drive back to green
One flawed approach, which kills projects, is check-the-box project management. It starts by letting inaccurate or alarming status update flow through, unchecked, or having items turn red without a remediation plan. It is especially true for innovation initiatives where the outcome is not guaranteed and issues become high risks.
When a key issue comes up at a stand-up meeting, it should trigger a “back to green” discussion if it is going to potentially derail the project or cannot be resolved timely by the team reporting it. Waiting to see if it goes away or assuming somebody is working on it is not sufficient. The first step to tackle those is to ensure ownership and confirm the timing for an update, even if the tasks around experimenting or researching an idea are not fully fleshed out.
There are many options to get things done and supplement teams running out of bandwidth, lacking specific expertise, or facing a roadblock: from using an offshore or outsourcing model, using more advanced ways to build prototypes and products such as crowdsourcing with companies such as Top Coder or Fivver. Bringing in experts and advisors can be helpful too.
Takeaway: it is critical to pro-actively and timely address any issues which threaten an on-going project, sometimes by enlisting outside help or by scheduling an emergency meeting
13. Celebrate Wins — always
Everybody needs validation and feeling valued. Companies should unequivocally celebrate the wins and specifically credit contributions.
Many have experienced the opposite scenario: a major initiative gets successfully completed. Nothing happens or a mass email goes out to thank just a couple of people on the team. No nice diner, no party, and no joy shared. The next meeting is to talk about new projects.
This can be especially counterproductive if team members come from a company where they celebrated success or if it was a particularly demanding project.
It does not have to always be an expensive activity. It can be offsite to regroup and celebrate. It could even be an extra day off, a breakfast buffet on a Friday, or a gift card. Leaders should acknowledge that the work is completed, that it was successful, and that a celebration is in order.
Takeaway: celebrate teamwork and each contribution before starting the next initiative
14. Encourage delivery excellence
When it comes to innovation, teams usually start from a vision, a grand design, and then scale down deliverables as they move forward. Some technology does not exist, some solutions are prohibitively expensive or some deadlines are looming so at some point it can become tempting to shrink the scope to reach the milestone. Some call it “creative milestoning”.
What if the table turned and the questions became: what else can we do? How can we go the extra mile? Does it make sense to adjust the course or ask for more time, new resources to deliver a better product? It often does. It should be part of the process for the team to be able to adjust timelines, deliverables, and obtain additional funding if it ends up benefiting the organization. Leadership should state at the onset that doors are open and dialogue is welcome because it will benefit all involved.
Takeaway: innovation projects can lead to unexpected results that go beyond the initial goals but create greater opportunities. Any way to encourage long-term thinking and going the extra mile creates incremental value.
What other ways to boost innovation can you think of? Feel free to comment below or reach out directly to discuss further.
Max Dufour is a Partner at Harmeda. He leads strategic engagements for Financial Services, Technology, and Strategy Consulting clients. Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn or visit Harmeda. Any links to external sites can be affiliate links and therefore generate compensation as part of the Amazon Associates Program and other similar programs.
Keywords related to innovation: digital disruption, disruptive innovation, idea, new ideas, ideation, chief innovation officer, chief digital officer, chief information officer, chief technology officer, chief executive officer, CIO, CTO, CDO, CEO, incubator, incubation, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Apple, Android, digital transformation, digital strategy, digital economy, the digital revolution, digital disruption, disruptive innovation, early stage, seed, venture