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Innovation Infrastructure and Skills: In Search of a Few Good People

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Creating a reliable capability for innovation requires that a number of factors be addressed and aligned. This article addresses infrastructure and skills, but equally important are other elements such as strategy, leadership, culture, process, and so on. My article, Eight Key Dimensions to Sustainable Innovation, lays out an eight-element framework detailing each of these key factors.

At Google, employees are expected to spend up to 20% of their time on side projects of their own choosing. Managers provide input and support, and colleagues jump in to assist on hot ideas when additional viewpoints or skills are needed. Innovation is everyone's responsibility – and it's treated very seriously.

You are not Google.

Chances are that most of your employees need to focus on delivering high-quality customer service or executing defined processes in a reliable and predictable way. There's space for innovation, but it isn't going to become a major activity for a lot of people. Instead, you need a few people focused on innovation, with others involved in a specific, time-limited way. Key infrastructure and skills include:

  • top leadership team to set policy and make key decisions
  • designated leader for innovation
  • innovation champions throughout the organization
  • cadre of facilitators to guide innovation activities
  • project team members to tackle selected innovation opportunities
  • active involvement of customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders

Taking care to establish this infrastructure will create accountability and engagement and prevent that "martyr syndrome" that often occurs when a program head is left to scurry around recruiting volunteers and currying attention.

The top leadership team needs to take an active role in innovation, setting strategy and policy, making decisions and allocating resources. And just as important are the supportive behaviors: recognizing accomplishments, communicating and clearing obstacles. The leadership team (or committee) should meet on a regular basis and ensure that innovation goals are being accomplished.

While the whole leadership team needs to actively engage with innovation, a single innovation leader should be designated to serve as the focal point. This position carries leadership accountability for innovation and requires deep prior experience in developing and sustaining an innovation capability in a similar industry or setting. Skills include leading change (culture/resistance, communications), product or service development/management/marketing, creativity and ideation, project management (especially applied techniques such as stage gate), business strategy/risk, resource allocation, and others. It's a tall role, one that even seasoned executives are not always prepared for.

Often in organizations, there is a disconnect below the executive level, where strategy gives way to the focus on daily operations and goals. To bridge this gap, innovation champions should be designated. These individuals can come from the ranks of middle management and their role is twofold; to translate down the overarching innovation strategy and to promote and support innovation wherever it might arise. These champions should receive some benefit or recognition and be granted access to top management for discussions related to innovation.

The skills needed to move an idea through design and development are not present in everyone. Nor can most organizations afford to train everyone (even if "just in time"). For this reason, a cadre of innovation facilitators is needed across the organization. Like Sherpa for a difficult journey, these specialists can help coach individuals and teams who are trying to innovate. They should be very informed of the organization's innovation strategy, processes and policies and have the skills needed throughout the journey; ideation, project planning/management, meeting facilitation, prototyping, user feedback, cost analysis, and other abilities. Most likely, these skills will be present across the cadre, but not in each individual. You can assess your organization's innovation capability and receive an interactive innovation report comparing your responses to others.

Some industries (especially those with heavy R&D investment) have dedicated staff to allocate to innovation projects. But more often, innovation teams are formed by hand-picking individuals across the organization to staff a project. While this can be an excellent way to spread the word about innovation, and expand involvement, there are perils that must be avoided. And the two most challenging perils involve time. Individuals on these projects are often "on loan" from their department. Regardless of the agreement, their absence often creates pain. And soon the invisible strings begin to pull them back to their home unit; the one that pays their salary. The second dimension of time is the length of the project. Whether left open-ended or time-bound but frequently extended, projects that go on indefinitely lose steam and often end in a whimper. To prevent these risks, innovation projects should be scoped to last no more than 90 days, and launching and closing three or four in parallel can help enforce this constraint.

These days, "open innovation" is all the rage, involving known stakeholders such as customers and suppliers in one's innovation efforts. It's a good idea. These groups are invested in your success and aware of the context, but also bring a fresh perspective to problems that may be viewed as intractable. In addition, organizations are invoking "open innovation" to engage experts from across the globe to contribute to solving problems and innovating into selected opportunities. Firms like InnoCentive have emerged with the capability to push needs out to thousands of potential "solvers", and payouts as high as $50,000 or more are a fraction of what the sponsoring organizations may be used to investing. But even without going this length, a strategy to involve stakeholders can create breakthroughs in thinking.

For an organization's innovation strategy to succeed, there is no substitute for skilled people deployed into a thoughtful infrastructure of temporary and full-time roles. While some level of investment is needed in experts and training, much of the work can be accomplished by current staff. Organizations have a latent capacity for activity that often arises in times of crisis, and failing to innovate can certainly become a crisis if not reverted in time.

Copyright © Andy Beaulieu

Andy Beaulieu has developed a new Innovation Portfolio Tracking Tool. The tool is currently in Beta. We will announce news of the release of Innovation Portfolio Tracker in our monthly Business Performance eNews. If you would like to be informed of the release, subscribe to eNews.

About the Author
Andy Beaulieu

Andy Beaulieu has over 20 years of performance improvement experience as both an internal specialist in global organizations and as an external consultant. Based in Washington DC, USA, his services span the spectrum of technical and interpersonal interventions. In his various roles, Andy has consulted to management, helped groups form and succeed, developed leaders, managed change initiatives, and reengineered business processes. His work has seen him develop and implement large-scale tools and systems to improve organizational effectiveness in well-known organizations across a variety of industries. Andy has also authored nine book chapters published by Jossey-Bass and McGraw-Hill, as well as other articles and government reports. To find out about Andy's program for high potential future leaders on fast-cycle innovation projects or other ways that he can help you, contact us at office@businessperform.com

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