Innovation process

Many of those reading this, whether CIOs or C-level execs, don’t need to be convinced as to why they should focus big on Open Innovation.

Is it hard to Innovate? It depends on how you approach the innovation journey. I’m going to share some of my thoughts on this below. I’m writing this because I noticed that despite the best efforts from some people, as a whole, most companies seem “incapable” to learn from their own mistakes. And plenty of managers, especially at the mid-level, are very opposed to changing the status-quo. It’s normal to be biased and wary when someone comes and proposes something that will affect the way you used to do things. But if you don’t at least consider this change, then you’ll have to live knowing that it was your fault when your company gets left behind by competitors, or worse, get bought by one. Remember Nokia? I’m pretty sure you do. Almost everyone had a Nokia phone once. Do you care that much about them nowadays? Probably not. What did Nokia’s CEO say? “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”

Top reasons on why you need to Innovate:

  • Your company will become irrelevant. And then go bankrupt. Or try to find a different business model or focus on only a niche market.
  • There is no “innovation silver bullet”. In order to get innovation right you need several things to be in your favour: put in lots of hard work, have a great multidisciplinary team and find the C-level people who will allow you to fail (fast) before actually delivering a marketable product and bring meaningful change in the organisation.
  • Innovation is not necessarily a process, although there are processes involved, but rather a state of mind, a shift in mindsets and cultural change in the organization.
  • Take things seriously but don’t let yourself be brought down by failure. Learn from it and if you can, learn from the competitors’ failures so you don’t repeat them.

How to get Innovation Right:

You need several things in order to be successful if you want to build a more innovative company. Here’s a short list of the most important factors with explanations for each:

  1. Business Sponsorship – without this, you can stop right since there’s no point moving forward. C-level buy-in from the beginning is adamant.
  2. Proper Methodologies – the framework is important, as plenty of innovation projects stumble because of the wrong methods being applied.
  3. A Multidisciplinary Team – You need people who know what they’re doing. Some generalists to coagulate everyone but also SMEs in each of the project/product fields. You cannot innovate alone, no matter how hard you try.
  4. Communication and Mutual Respect – each goes without saying. You can be the master of disruptive innovation, if no one knows about it then it’s pointless. You need to respect the people you’re interacting with as each has something to offer and something to teach you.
  5. Freedom to fail – one of the biggest issues in innovation, and the reason why many projects are doomed to fail, mostly due to the risk-adverse culture in corporations. This can be overcome if you get top management buy-in.
  6. Time and Culture – time is not on your side as most top managers want immediate results. At the same time, however, you need to be very clear that until you find that formula that works you’ll need to experiment – Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a slow process, not necessarily to bring a project from ideation to delivery but rather to build the “innovation friendly culture” inside the company.

The Factors, Explained:

  1. Business Sponsorship – this is by far the most important but also the hardest to come by. You must have time and also patience and some open-minded execs to help you on your journey. How to get the upper management to help you out? By starting small and being a good marketer. Yes, marketing should be involved because you need to promote yourself and your team whenever you accomplish something in order to raise visibility and awareness so you reach the people who will then be your universal keys that will open the doors to all departments inside the company.
  2. Proper Methodologies – What is the best method or process that yields good results in innovation? You’d be tempted to say that many – and yes, there are a few. But it depends on the type of innovation you want. Incremental or Disruptive?
    • For incremental innovations you can even use the good old lean (six sigma) methodology. It’s proven itself and yields good results. This is something better referred to as continuous improvement.
    • Disruptive innovation is harder to get by but not impossible. You need to blend a few methods and processes with some frameworks that will bring you the much sought after results. These are design thinking and agile management. No need to go too much into detail about the two, you can find a ton of articles online about both. Design thinking (or User-Centered Design) helps you come up with solutions to your customer’s problems, be they end customers or internals (colleagues). Innovation doesn’t have to be only the flashy app that everyone’s talking about. It could be something far less glamorous that helps your colleagues double the amount of tasks processed in half the time. So it could be anything from an end-to-end payments app to an AI led RPA bot. Agile and its two main branches, Scrum and Kanban are there to guide you through the rest of the journey by allowing continuous interaction between developers, stakeholders and end-users.
    • Tools are also important. Technology has to be an enabler of whatever you do. Without it you’ll be in a tougher spot. If technology doesn’t help you and you have to constantly worry about it working, then you’ll have one more issue to try and solve. If that’s the problem then one of your first projects should focus on this.
  3. A Multidisciplinary Team – This has the potential to make or break your entire innovation initiative. Add too many “dreamers” and you’ll have too much creativity. Add too many project managers and you’ll have too many people worrying about reports when they should do things in a smart way. A true innovation team needs to blend together people that are well versed in design thinking with more creative minds but also bring in know-how from all the major departments in a (large) company, like cybersecurity, architecture and infrastructure, legal and compliance, finance and procurement. Why? Because this way you’ll create the collaborative environment that will help propel your projects faster through the pipeline and give them that boost that they need to be delivered on time, within budget and also meet the business requirements. Of course, you don’t have to keep everyone in the same room from ideation to delivery but involve them from the beginning and then, subsequently in each step that touches on their area of knowledge.
  4. Communication and Mutual Respect – This goes without saying. You need to speak with the other departments, as often as possible, and through any means necessary. Skype them, get them out for a coffee, organize show and tells and other types of cross-department and team-building exercises to increase collaboration both within your team and with the other departments. This could be done as extracurricular activities as well. The more you know your coworkers the better you’ll be at understanding what drives them and how they can contribute to your initiatives. Show them respect and understand what drives them and how they can contribute to the project, be it by approving something or pointing you in the right direction when you’re stuck.
  5. Freedom to fail – This needs to be emphasised, because not everything arriving from the innovation department, or however you structure your initiative, will end up being implemented. Why? Because that’s how things work. Some people get too enthusiastic about a product early on and despite the best efforts put in, it will become a flop. Maybe it was oversold. Maybe the initial research and design phases were not done properly. And so on. Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. You’re actually in select company. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and all the other major corporations that are also applying design thinking in their innovation processes have had similar experiences. The important thing is to try and learn from their mistakes and more importantly, definitely learn from yours!
  6. Time and Culture – There never seems to be enough time when you need it, right? That’s because we perceive it differently, depending on what our activity is. Time flies by when you’re having fun. But go through a rough patch and your brain will think it’s the end of the world. It’s quite normal actually. You’ll need time to get your team together. You’ll need time to do research and come up with ideas. You’ll need time to build your prototypes and get the approvals from all internal stakeholders. Furthermore, you’ll need time to bring the product to market and once this is done, you’ll need time to see how the market reacts to your product, what feedback they give you and what improvements you need to make to it. If you’re lucky, this will pass very quickly and you’ll have smooth sailing. If you’re like everyone else, you’ll struggle in some areas and you’ll feel like you won’t make it but you just have to hang on. The Innovation Culture needs to be intertwined into the fabric of your department. You need to be disruptive any way you can. You need to work on building that sensitivity in people that will then make it easier for innovation projects to succeed and new ideas to thrive.

If you have any comments or suggestions feel free to drop me a line.

(Header image credit zsoolt on / CC BY-NC)