Innovate or Become Irrelevant

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“Social enterprising and engineering give us the ability to innovate using many minds instantly, as opposed to using a few highly versed experts with unavoidable biases tied to the old way of doing business.

With social enterprising, one can get an instant pulse on the direction of the wave as opposed to feeling the wave through product development and marketing.

Better yet, I submit that social enterprising will open the door to other areas of innovation and business development such as: cloud computing applied to pattern recognition, machine learning and computer vision, data parsing for quick decision making, worldwide warning system for earthquake monitoring and prediction etc…”

I agree 100%.

Every week CEOs contact me for techniques to increase their rate and quality of innovation, to expedite product and service development, to streamline customer input in the process of creation. How do we do this? Read on.

1.      Create a Culture of Innovation

The #1 problem we see in cultures of low innovation is the lack of rewards and consequences in the areas where they need to be—in fostering new ideas and risk taking. Beyond the top level of management, many team members experience very little support of their ideas. As they say in Hollywood “It isn’t a good idea until the right person has it.” Would your team members report that their ideas are being shot down before due consideration? If so, you’ll quickly find that new ideas are “somebody else’s responsibility.”

Next check your company’s level of conflict avoidance. When we don’t have healthy debate ideas will be stalled and innovation will suffer. And if ideas do get a fair hearing, ensure they also get adequate due diligence. When innovations are rushed to market for innovation’s sake (or a manager’s bonus) low customer interest, costly production and/or warranty issues will appear. Healthy conflict, structured brainstorming forums where “stupid” ideas are OK, external focus and “what if” thinking is essential in a culture of innovation.

Last, make sure you have a solid connection between R&D, sales and customers.  A company that is focused on and in constant touch with its customers will naturally create highly compelling products. Focus, priority, structure, leadership, rewards, and dedicated time are key to fostering a culture of innovation. See #4 below to more deeply root innovation in your culture.

2.      Create an Innovation Advisory Board

This is a structured group of clients and prospective clients who’ll be a sounding board for your innovations. Your Innovation Advisory Board (IAB) members are ideally a cross-section of 8-10 decision-making executives who’ll share their needs with you in order to help you create the products they want.  Pick 30% current clients, 30% prospective clients in current markets, and 40% prospective clients in markets you’d like to one day enter—and with the products they’ll help you design. Have a formal structure (30 min interview via phone or in person) to solicit input on an IAB member’s needs and future strategy that you could support.  If they are a current client be sure to ask them what they would like to change in your current products—innovation can also be improvement.

Be sure to create a team of Innovation Engineers to solicit the IAB input. The Innovation Engineer role will shadow IAB members and bring sound ideas back. They’ll need to have enough product development expertise to ask the right technical questions, and they’ll need enough sales finesse to build relationships and extract key pain points. And once rapport and trust is established, ask the IAB member if an Innovation Engineer can shadow them for 2 days in a given quarter to understand how they work and where their pains and frustrations arise.  This is super helpful as I always find IAB members have many needs they haven’t articulated.

3.      Launch Internal Innovation Incubator Team meetings

Every company needs brainstorming with cross-functional teams in order to innovate better and faster. Creating an Innovation Incubator Team (IIT) will help keep innovation top of mind and ensure new products have diverse champions. Here’s how they work. First select a variety of expertise and perspectives for your IIT: representation from sales, engineering, manufacturing, client care, marketing, finance will provide the broad perspective you need. Set a regular date for this 2 hour brainstorming meeting, with everyone bringing an idea for a new innovation in the area of product/service, process, culture. Have a simple charter for your bi-weekly or monthly IIT meeting: every meeting must yield one or more specific innovation. Each innovation must have a projected ROI, an owner to drive it to completion, and a cross-functional team to support it.

And don’t let the ideas die. At the close of each IIT meeting, the owners of the innovations that were approved must specify deliverables and deadlines for their innovation to keep momentum. Then they’ll update the IIT on weekly progress via your social technologies or even basic old email status reports.

4.      Celebrate the Innovation of the Week

Innovation can occur anywhere in your company—so to keep it top of mind, create an Innovation of the Week program complete with rewards and celebrations. Just like the output of the structured Innovation Incubator Team Each, each Innovation of the Week has:

  • Category (Product/Service, Process, Culture)
  • Expected ROI (to be tracked over next 90 days)
  • Details of innovation (what it is, why, who is affected)

An innovation can be as simple as your bookkeeper reducing a bill paying process by 3 steps and thus saving 5 minutes per bill, to an entirely new product line, to an improvement to a current product, to a new high margin service, to a new cultural ritual to improve employee engagement. The Innovation of the Week is submitted to the Innovation Incubator Team and the selected winner is celebrated on the Innovation Wall of Fame, where each innovation is summarized with a photo of the innovator. The innovator is acknowledged and appreciated publicly via your company newsletter, CEO blog, company meetings, and gets a certificate to hang in their office (cheesy yes, cute yes!) plus a Starbuck’s $25 card, or some smaller prize.

Then after the 90 day ROI period is over, and we really know what the ROI of the innovation truly is, the prize is bigger. From the Innovation of the Week winners we select an Innovation of the Month and Quarter based on ROI and positive impact on the company.

Over time the tremendous amount of innovation across the company (and gentle peer pressure on those departments not innovating) will create healthy competition. Use social technologies, such as your corporate wiki, your internal chat platform, or any other collaborative engine to get conversations and ideas flowing.

The innovation of the past doesn’t apply here–innovation today is highly dependent on collaboration across the entire company, regardless of where the innovators are based. This is why social and enhanced communication technologies are essential! How are you fostering innovation in your company?

Christine Commaford

Christine Comaford is a five-time CEO with 700% ROI on her company exits. She coaches executives to achieve remarkable results in performance and operational efficiency by combining neuroscience and business strategy. Follow her on Twitter (@comaford) and download an excerpt of her upcoming book SmartTribe: Creating a Culture That Outperforms, Outsells, Outinnovates the Competition at www.SmartTribeBook.com.

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