I was recently chatting with an innovation program leader at a Fortune 100 financial services company who was asking about the unique aspects that I see across various innovation programs. At first I started on a rambling response, but then, after a sip of beer and a moment of reflection came up with the following list, which is by no means complete or exhaustive. Consider it a perspective, given after a couple of beers:
Small size, seeking big impact: When I ran an innovation program I had a staff of 3 people, working across a global organization of 50,000 people. I was really proud of the results that we achieved with that small group, which I thought was totally unique. Turns out I was wrong. Innovation programs are almost universally tiny, and all are seeking to have huge cultural impacts across complex, geographically disbursed organizations. This is driving a general shift within the industry to source more turnkey solutions from external vendors that are impactful, strategically aligned with the Program’s goals and rolled out with minimal support at their end.
Smart, overstretched and constantly shifting: In line with the above point, the members of every program I deal with are incredibly smart individuals, who are stretched really, really thin. I have worked in the corporate world for 20-plus years and this is absolutely the most stretched group of individuals I have worked with.
Working in an innovation program is often given as a reward to high potential employees, generally working on rotation. The result is that there is a high turnover of staff in this field, and this often inhibits true competency development within the organization, as successful innovation development is complicated and difficult to achieve in a 6-month period of time.
Struggling for ROI: It doesn’t matter that many of these innovation programs are small groups in otherwise huge organizations, the pressure is always on for leaders to justify investment and expansion of their programs. When these programs first start they are in a position where they can focus on employee or customer engagement as a way to justify their investment, but within 12-18 months this needs to turn to more serious ROI metrics. Leadership looks for one thing when they are talking innovation: Dollars on the bottom line. They might talk about the importance of engagement, perceptions, partnership, etc., but in my experience, to be taken seriously these programs need to focus on generating ROI from day 1, not 18 months into their program’s life.
Struggling to execute: Aligned with the above comment. I think at this point, most companies that I talk with have the front-end of innovation pretty much sorted. They can go out to their audiences and ask questions that provide relatively well-considered and structured ideas. That is all well and good, but an idea alone provides no real value. It needs to be executed to add value. Almost all of the program leaders that I chat with struggle to increase the quality of ideas that they are sourcing from front-end activities, and ultimately increase the rate of execution of ideas. This is however changing with new approaches around educating employees around innovation skill sets and then building networks of connected and engaged employees. Full disclosure here, this is what Culturevate, my new venture does for organizations.
True leadership sponsorship: I am putting this into this list, not because every program has it, but every successful program that I work with has it. It is easy for a leader to approve and sign an email announcing the launch of an innovation program, but I have never seen a program that is really showing success that operates without the active and consistent supporter of a senior leader within the organization.
So, take these points as you will, and let me know what else you are seeing that is consistent across Innovation Programs?
Thanks again for reading, and as always, let me know your thoughts.