On Wednesday, March 10, 2010, I had the privilege of attending an innovation conference and discussion - Elsevier's Corporate Connect Event: Implementing a Culture of Innovation. Given the low price tag (free) and complete sponsorship by one company (Elsevier), I was not sure how much information I would be able to apply directly to my company. I was very pleased to find that the event was far from a day long sales pitch and was truly an opportunity to connect and talk about ways to improve innovation within company walls.
The event was organized into four presentations and one expert panel discussion (with multiple networking opportunities in-between).
- Elsevier's Innovation Journey (Jeff Honious at Elsevier)
- Building a Culture of Innovation (Peter Skarzynski at Strategos)
- Implementing a Culture of Innovation (Mike Hess at Medtronic)
- Supporting a Culture of Innovation (Cynthia A. Larson at Eaton)
The expert panel consisted of four Information Specialists (super librarians) from Eaton, Abbot Labs, Kimberly Clark, and St. Jude Medical. The Q&A centered on understanding the role that internal and external information plays to support innovation and how to improve the way employees access that information.
Below is my "Top 11" summary from the conference. To help foster further discussion, I have placed company links throughout this summary and LinkeIn links for each of the presenters.
Build Your Innovation Culture:
#1 - Include the Most Important Member of Your Innovation Team - The End User
The customer is king was mentioned (in various ways) during every presentation. All innovation efforts will fail eventually if the end user is not driven to use your new product or service. Make sure everything you do starts with: "Who is the end user and why do they want this?"
For the most part, humans are intelligent and know when you have come up with something that will truly impact their life. It is true that people can not always voice their needs and desires in a way that makes sense, but your challenge should be to find creative ways to understand their behaviors and figure out how to include them in your innovation process.
#2 - Challenge an Orthodoxy (The Way Things Are)
The point of innovation is to come up with new ideas that can be turned into tangible outcomes (most measure in terms of profit or other quantitative metrics). However, some of the best ideas are not 'new' ideas but are instead challenges to existing assumptions (think of Apple challenging the way music was sold or Dell challenging the way computer were purchased and assembled).
However, those kinds of insights require all employees to be comfortable challenging the "way things are" around them. The further out in the organization you can instill this mentality, the more impact it will have on your culture. What benefit could come from your line workers feeling like it was there job to suggest new ways of doing things?
While it is not the overly positive case study it once was, Toyota is known for keeping low costs by listening to the ideas of their assembly workers.
#3 - Get Someone "Up Top" Interested
The majority of innovation teams start when a CEO or CIO says that it will be so. Those struggling to improve things from the bottom up without initial support will need to work to get the attention of someone up top. Without top level support, you may never gain the resources needed to really move the dial and impact the entire organization.
#4 - Take a Diagonal Slice Across the Organization
When assembling a new innovation team, it is best to take a cross functional/diagonal cut through the organization. Many companies start with something that looks like a country club meeting with top level executives getting together to discuss how to improve the performance of the common employee.
Instead of limiting the innovation team to top level strategic thinkers, make sure you include some middle level managers and some low level individual contributors. On top of getting suggestions from various levels throughout the organization, you will also be adding team members who are willing to put in extra effort to take advantage of the exciting opportunity.
Oh yeah, and all members should want to be part of the group. If someone doesn't have passion for improving innovation, they will never find the time needed to make an impact.
#5 - Don't Forget Your Managers - Their Brains Still Work
Most managers were once the lower lever employees who went to college, dreamed of making the world a better place, and happily moved away from concentrated individual work to manage a team towards bigger objectives. Managing a team doesn't allow for many individual contributions, but managers' brains are still working (most of them anyway).
When you are looking to implement a company-wide innovation process, make sure you create systems that allow and encourage managers to give quick bursts of energy and submit their individual ideas.
Keep the Momentum Going:
#6 - Stick to the Vision at All Costs - Do the Coin Test
When you deviate from your initial founding vision, you increase the space between you and your current consumer. You also dilute resources, reduce focus, and most importantly diminish employee passion. Ideas are cheap.
Many paths end with increase profits. Make sure your path lines up with your vision so that all employees will passionately follow. Follow Medtronic's example and carry a physical reminder of the corporate vision on a coin. When you have a tough decision to make, review the vision on the coin to help set your path. If you don't have a clear vision that links to a consumer benefit, then that is the first place to start.
#7 - Demonstrate the Benefit
All innovation efforts should be tracked and measured. While is not always easy to quantify the impact of improving the culture or the benefit in increased communication, you can track things like the geographical diversity of idea contributors (put stars on a world map), the number of unique idea contributors, and the total number of ideas generated. When you do get a solid win, make sure you take the time to communicate it across the company.
#8 - Expect 96% Failure Rate
I was surprised by the finding that 96% of innovation efforts fail, but I would have guessed that failure was near 90% from my past experiences. Whatever the number is for your industry, failure is part of the innovation process. Your goal is to create a process that allows you to fail quickly and avoid wasting resources. How are you set up to learn from your mistakes and keep moving with renewed passion?
#9 - Develop an Innovation "Pressure Cooker"
New ideas can't get off the ground relying only on 15 minute blocks of time between meetings or other project work. From time to time you need to grab a team of people, rent a space off site, and commit days at a time to uncovering new consumer insights and product ideas. Make sure enough time is allowed to get from the discovery phase all the way to the creation of a full action plan and timeline. When possible, bring in some of your end users to the session.
Recognize what Success Looks Like
#10 - Increase Human Connections
When reviewing your innovation efforts, make sure to determine if you connected people and increased dialog. If you got people talking, then you were successful. If no new conversations have started, you need to rethink your approach.
#11 - Build Your Planet Memory Alpha
When the panel of Information Specialists was asked what the future of innovation management would look like, Star Trek's Planet Memory Alpha was the quick answer. While I am not much of a Star Trek fan, I believed the expert panel when they described the planet as the ideal location for 'external innovation'. The Star Trek planet stored all historical knowledge for the universe and anyone could access that information.
While we live in a society of patents, trade secrets, and general information secrecy; increasing the availability of information is important for innovation. One significant opportunity discussed would be to improve the availability of internal information and improve how it connects to external information. What would it be like if when you searched Google to find external information, you were also searching all internal knowledge? How else could that connection be improved?
If you want to continue the discussion with me, jot your comments below.
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Geoff Zoeckler is a young, passionate innovator with 7+ years in product development roles leading the front end of innovation. Geoff is looking to connect to share personal insights to improve corporate innovation culture from the bottom up.