What is the most important component of a winning innovation team?
People. And As Depeche Mode says:
“People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully”
I love Depeche Mode. As a guy who grew up in the 80’s, there was nothing better than kicking back and listening to music, reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and thinking, aren’t people horrible?
As you may be able to tell, I used to be a very serious introvert. Now I think I’ve changed a bit, but I still get this nagging feeling that everything that ever goes wrong with almost anything is someone’s fault.
At one company I was at, the most popular idea submitted was “fire half of the middle management”. You think this guy may have had a bone to pick with some people?
This post is about the people who are essential to the success of your innovation program or lab, the key essential personnel you need in order to make it a success:
- Executive Sponsor, or preferably sponsors
- Program Manager
- Human Resources
Here, we’ll dive deep into the roles that we think you will need in order to have a successful program, as well as some other people issues. Some of the roles above you’ll find in multiple individuals, in others they may be teams of people. If you ask me, the more people that you can pull in to support your program, the better.
You need an executive sponsor. Let me say that again: you need an executive sponsor. This is non-negotiable. In fact, you really need more than one executive sponsor. Based on my experience, the number one killer of innovation labs and innovation programs is losing their executive sponsor. We have seen this far too many times.
It doesn’t matter if your program is doing well or flailing – without an executive sponsor, your days are numbered.
If you are looking to start a program, before you do anything, get an executive sponsor. You don’t have to build up a huge case for it since it’s almost impossible to show an ROI on possible future innovation unless you are already showing an ROI on current innovation efforts. Put together a short deck describing the program that you want to set up and pitch it to your most receptive boss who can run it up the chain. Be persistent, and eventually, you should find an executive sponsor. If you can’t find one in the C-Suite, you still may have a chance to start a smaller program, but your chances of success are lower. If you can’t find a sponsor no matter how hard you try, then I have some bad news for you. Your company may not be ready or able to run an innovation program. If you are still interested in running an innovation program, you may need to scale it down to your group. You may even have to leave your company. There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to drag a company into a more innovative culture if the top is not ready for it.
If your program is already running and you have a sponsor, that’s great. Take my advice: get more. These days, in fact in any days, in my experience the moment there is any uncertainty about the markets, the company or its future, then the first thing to go is the innovation program. Innovation is considered a “nice to have” and only seems to flourish in good times, and is almost always cut in lean times, (or even if lean times are on the horizon) so if you really want your program or lab to live on, no matter what happens, you will need to spread the sponsorship duties across a number of people. Additionally, with all of the M&A activity and executive shuffling that tends to go on in some larger organizations, it is always a good idea to have more than one sponsor at the top.
If you had a sponsor and have recently lost them, maybe they’ve been reassigned, or maybe let go, or maybe they’ve left the company and you currently have no sponsor, you should be prepared for the program to either be shuttered, or try your hardest to get a new sponsor as soon as possible. An innovation program without an executive sponsor likely has a short shelf life.
Why is this? When everyone keeps saying that innovation is so important to an organization, you might think, so do I really need a sponsor?
The issue is that, no matter how well you attempt to integrate your innovation function into the culture of your organization, there will always be factions within your company who are ready to kick you out of the organization or shut you down. The organizations, which find all innovation non-threatening, are few are far between. You can always tell those organizations because even their own organizational structures can be innovative. If you are seeing a standard ordinary org chart in your organization, then there is a good chance that someone out there still wants to shut you down.
Program Manager – Your Innovation Team Leader
Once you have secured your sponsor, you will need a program manager to actually create and run the program. I’m assuming that’s you.
OK, I’m kidding. The fact is that while you may have the toughest role, keeping all of this moving forward, you also have the most rewarding. There is nothing like seeing the ideas submitted by your inventors being viewed and reviewed. There is nothing like the amazing engagement and excitement a program like this elicits among your employees. There is nothing like the thrill when you hear how someone’s idea was selected from so many others to become a real product or go into the patent pipeline. When you see your inventors, your employees, joining in and actually being excited and engaged with the future directions of your company. No longer are they simply pushing bits around, but are truly contributing to the future welfare of your company. It’s a great feeling.
Of course, on the flip side, there are many barriers to overcome, but your role is to manage everything that comes along, knock down those barriers, and keep moving forward. You will:
- Design the parameters of the program and get the executive sponsor
- Work with your internal marketing team to come up with a theme for the program which fits your culture. The positioning of the program is extremely important to its success. Some people feel that it’s all about the tool and the processes used to capture and process the ideas, but in reality, it’s more about the overall program than it is about the technology.
- Work with your HR people to position this as an employee motivation program in addition to an ideation program, as well an educational and training program. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, an innovation program, especially an enterprise-wide program, has an amazing ability to motivate even the most jaded workforce, assuming that it’s done properly (otherwise known as “following the principles in this book”)
- Work with your legal team to figure out the patent side of things. Depending on your company’s current stance on intellectual property (which we will cover more in chapter 6) you may be completely prepared to funnel patentable ideas
As the program manager, you are the key to making this whole thing work. No pressure! But seriously, there may be some days when you are ready to give up, some days when you feel like you are battling the entire company in order to move a few steps forward, some days when you truly wonder if people really mean what they say when they say “innovate or die”. Sometimes it will feel like the inverse, that the last thing your organization needs is to innovate.
We’ve all read the Innovator’s Dilemma, and understand that a company that does not innovate will eventually be overcome by competitive forces and die. We all understand (well, most of us do anyway) that innovation is not a force to be feared, but the next evolutionary step in your company’s future. Your innovation program is the womb which will birth new products, new services and eventually new companies to replace your own. If you can think of it that way, innovation and disruption is a natural way of life. We disrupted our parents and our children will disrupt us, and so on.
OK, I beat that metaphor up. Let’s move on to the rest of your team.
When you do finally get a program up and running, you will need a tool to capture, sort and review those ideas. While there are plenty of tools like that on the market, you will likely need someone from IT to assist you in the selection of an innovation management system.
As I mentioned, there are many tools on the market, and you will need to attempt to select a tool which will map to your corporate culture. This is why it is so important to nail the outcomes and the culture fit first: if you use a tool which does not map to the culture, that is not good.
As I mentioned earlier, I was brought in to reboot a moribund program at one of my clients, and the tool that they used was a big stumbling block. All of the other tools that the client used were cool and cutting edge, this one looked like it was Windows 3.1 app which had been turned into a webpage. Beyond the look and feel (even though the design and workflow of the tool are extremely important – there have been so many programs which fall flat due to poor interface design) the process and transparency options were sorely lacking. Here we were trying to foist a backward-looking, closed process system tool on a leading edge user base. When it launched, it collected a few ideas, but nowhere near what it could have had it been the right tool for the job. Think of it this way: this is how your inventors will interact with your innovation program. The interface has to be as cool and slick as the rest of your program.
You need a technologist to assist you in selecting a tool. You may already have a tool in-house which does this kind of thing (at one client I did a review of tools without realizing that they already had 7 licenses of a perfectly good tool, which they were using, in a completely different area of the organization. If you don’t have a tool, the technologist can assist you in selecting and configuring the tool to your specifications and process. Don’t be timid here: the success of your program depends on the tool being able to accurately communicate the theme and process involved in the program.
Depending on your industry, you may have many different levels of review and approval in the ideation and review process, but my most successful implementations have been ones where the most transparency and the most communications occurred.
In later chapters, we’ll talk about the pluses and minuses of specific tools, but at this point, make sure that you attempt to work with a technologist who understands that the program itself is more important than the tool itself. The functionality of the tool should not dictate the process of the program.
While this is rare in my experience, you may be in a truly forward thinking company which understands that if there are some really interesting ideas which come out of your innovation program, then some of those ideas will need to move to the prototype stage in order to garner enough support to develop into a real live product. If you have the luxury of being able to create a team who can also develop prototypes of the ideas submitted and approved, then you will need coders to do the work. These coders can be part of your team or if you have some kind of Google-style 20% time, then they can come from other teams and it can be their 20% time. Ideally, the ones who’ve come up with the idea can also help you code the idea. Ideally, here you need at least one front-end developer who can design beautiful interfaces (the interface design is more key than covering all of the functionality) and a backend developer who can make the thing work. Don’t worry about scalability, just use a rapid prototyping framework and have it generate a beautiful working prototype. You can then use this prototype to pitch the idea for the product.
I’ve never been able to create, launch and run a successful program without some marketing help. You need marketing in order to sell your program, keep it top of mind for the duration of the program, help you to come up with the theme and materials of the program, and generally assist in building communications and outreach. You can use marketing personnel who typically talk to your customers, or ideally internal communications folks who already have the pulse of your internal corporate culture. You may be able to do it on your own if you have a marketing background, but I suggest that you get help here – you want the program to look professional, and there is nothing like professional designer’s touch. You will need a theme, imagery which matches that theme, copy which matches that theme, and a communications plan which describes what you say when and to whom.
You might not have accounted for this, but an enterprise-wide crowdsourced innovation program is a phenomenal motivating force for employees. As long as your HR department is receptive (believe me, I have come across some who aren’t) then the HR department will be one of your biggest allies in assisting you in spreading the word about your program. They can help you with selecting awards for participation, communicating with employees, making sure that you don’t step on any landmines with awards (there are some companies who have very specific rules when it comes to what you can and cannot reward your employees with – iPads maybe, recognition for sure, wild drunken trips to Vegas, probably not)
However, you have to be careful here, as the HR department can also be a venerable foe. You will need to test the waters with them early and make sure that you keep them as allies.
Actually, you should try and make everyone your ally. You already have enough hidden (and some not so hidden) forces trying to take your program down, why make any more enemies?
You need to consult with legal on two fronts.
One, you have to ensure that whoever will join the program has properly agreed to give up their rights to any intellectual property that they generate for the program. Most employees have already done this, (it’s typically handled by HR during the onboarding process) but in some cases, it might be iffy when it comes to contractors. While typically all contractors also sign terms when they come on that all of their work is work for hire and that the work product, including any ideas that they come up with when they are engaged with the company automatically become the company’s property, in some cases, your legal department may wish to restrict participation in the program to only full-time employees. Even though some of your contractors may have great ideas, there is likely too much of a legal risk to allow them into the program. Every time I have come across this issue, contractors have not been allowed to participate. Can’t argue with the lawyers on this one, they know way more than me on this topic.
Two, if you are very lucky, some of the ideas which your people will generate will be so amazingly cool that they will be patentable. If that is the case, your legal team will determine the patentability of the idea (although I do go into some detail on what is and isn’t patentable later in this book) and if it is patentable, they may file a patent for the idea.
I suggest that even if you are not looking for patentable ideas, you will get some – ideas that are so cool and far out and probably not buildable today, but at some future time and with some future system. These ideas may be something that your company may do in future or something one of your competitors may do.
Depending on your company, your legal department may totally understand this and have legal personnel ready to take any of these possibly patentable ideas and process them for patentability. On the other hand, your legal team may know nothing about patents and patentability and completely rely on Outside Counsel (or OC) for the review and processing of ideas. Either way, you need to prepare your legal department for the possible acceptance of patentable ideas. Please see the patentability chapter later in the book to determine if the idea in question should go to the legal department for review. After doing this for a number of years, I can usually tell when an idea is patentable immediately. Until you get there, please fall back on your own legal team or my guidelines in Chapter 6.
Inventors – The Key Members Of Your Innovation Team
These are your peeps, yo.
Who is an inventor? Anyone within your organization that you would like to solicit ideas from. Ideally, IMHO, this is enterprise-wide, but in some organizations, you may need to restrict it to a smaller group. In one organization, a major retailer I worked with, while I really wanted to extend it to the entire organization (which at the time had 2M global employees), we kept it to the e-commerce group only, of which there were about 3000 employees at the time. As I mentioned above, you may have to restrict it to full-time employees only, which will require that your technologists program the system in such as way as to only allow full-time employees into the system. Even if you can do that, sometimes some names sneak in, and you may have to discard some ideas if a contractor or two get into the system (this happened to me a few times and it was pretty sad as the ideas they had come up with were pretty good – but of course I couldn’t tell them that.
Beyond selecting who will submit ideas, which I suggest be everyone, you will also need to decide if you wish to allow for anonymous submissions. While these are not truly anonymous, since the login system will likely know the identity of the submitter, this may provide a layer of comfort for inventors with truly radical ideas to allow them to come forth. It really depends on the culture of your organization – some organizations will not allow it, others may believe that those are the best submissions, as the inventors are free to disconnect themselves from the idea, and therefore pose very disruptive and challenging ideas.
As I mentioned earlier, I remember someone once posting anonymously that “half of the middle management team should be fired as non-essential” and I had to initially block the name of the submitter from the CEO until he relented and agreed that whoever posted that should remain anonymous (along with the hundreds of voters who upvoted the idea too)
Your inventors are your lifeblood. Without your inventors your program will fail miserably, so make sure that you take very, very good care of your inventors. Some tips:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate and again, communicate
- Never let them think that their ideas have fallen into a black hole
- Respond quickly to all queries, even if you have to tell them that you are still working on reviewing them
- Once you know the disposition of an idea, let your inventor know immediately what will be happening to the idea, even if you won’t be moving forward with it. Not knowing is worse than hearing someone say “no” quickly
- Provide feedback via the crowd. Don’t let yourself or your team be the only responders. Build a system to allow the crowd to review and vote on the ideas
- No man or woman or idea should be left behind. Decide on the disposition of every idea, and let the inventors know as soon as possible what will happen to them
- Recognize their contributions to the program in some way. Hook their stats in with HR and let them know how many ideas, votes, and reviews they contributed. Make engagement in the program part of their KPIs. Bring the top inventors onto the stage at the monthly or quarterly all-hands meeting and let them talk about their ideas. Award the top inventors with lunch with the president, a ball game in the corporate box, a monetary award (typically for filed patentable ideas only) or just plain old very public enterprise-wide attaboys and pats on the back.
These are also your inventors, but they can also be handpicked teams who review the ideas in stages.
Ideally, you should set up a program where anyone can invent and anyone can upvote or down vote any idea, as well as drop a review against the idea.
As the ideas are collected, you can set up timebox stages where you collect ideas, then vote on ideas, then review ideas, through different stages and by different teams.
For example, here is a set of possible stages
- Idea submission
- Idea voting
- Idea review – Management Team
- Idea Review – Technology Team
- Idea Review – Legal Team
- Idea Decision
- Move Forward with Prototype
- Move Forward with Patent
- Move Forward with both Patent and Prototype
- Needs more information
- Do not move forward at this time
This is just one model. I can’t dictate which model will work best for you since every corporate culture is different. I’ve run programs with specific time-boxed stages like the above, and others where there was a complete free-for-all, and anyone could do any of the above steps 2-6 in any order, once the idea was submitted.
In that case, anyone could vote, comment and review on any idea once it was submitted, and the teams could pick an idea out of the system to prototype and/or patent at any time. It was a little chaotic, but it worked for that company.
I seem to keep coming back to culture fit since it’s the main thing that I kept coming across in companies with both successful and unsuccessful programs. The closer your program fits with the corporate culture, the more successful it will be.
These are usually your senior managers, the folks who have the ability to pluck an idea out of the stream, depending on the process, and move it to prototype, patent, or even direct to the product in rare cases. I’ve usually used a cross-functional team to be the approvers, with the team recommending to senior management which of the selected ideas should be green-lighted.
When it comes to funding the green-lighted ideas, the funding can come from many sources, but typically your executive sponsor can step in at this time and find a place for the ideas within the organization.