5 traits to unlocking innovation performance
“How do we make innovation work in this new world?” A senior executive of a major telecommunications company asked a Zoom room full of peers this question recently, and it remains top of mind for chief executives, who are now realizing that COVID-related constraints, including hyper-distributed teams, may last well into 2022. As a result, innovation has evolved from a side hustle to the core of what it means to survive.
Conventional tools like PowerPoint and Excel remain the default for managing innovation in many organizations, but they do a mediocre job even in steady times and under traditional paradigms. While automation has never been more available to knowledge workers, studies show that employees at large companies spend up to 20 hours per month building slides. Nearly 40% of that time is spent on just formatting issues. Today’s business environment has no room for this kind of friction and inefficiency – especially in innovation programs.
Corporate executives must move beyond conventional approaches and tools, and instead equip their internal teams with the capabilities and tools to work better, smarter, and make an impact faster. In order to do that, they must embody these five traits to drive enterprise-wide transformation and a shift in mindset, especially as we navigate the highest degree of business uncertainty experienced in decades.
Trait #1 – Provide Widespread Access: Enable everyone to contribute to innovation goals.
Practical innovation happens most often outside of the board room. However, too often the strategic insights and plans for the business are cooped up within the minds (and hard drives) of a small percentage of people in top leadership positions at the company. Employees are left out of the loop, thus missing the opportunity to participate in innovation. While challenges in the boardroom exist, directors who advocate business transformation will ensure that the company’s strategy and the framework for innovation is widely shared throughout its ranks.
Openwave, a California-based software company, recognized this dynamic in 2007 (as noted in the Harvard Business Review article Making Your Strategy Work on the Frontline). The company knew that if it wanted to ensure successful execution of its new corporate strategy, it would need to move beyond boardroom deliberation to direct collaboration with their workforce. It crafted a group of 30 leaders from different seniority levels and various departments. It then enlisted this group to participate in a series of strategy workshops and discussions about the future over a period of three months. When the workshops wrapped, the leaders emerged aligned and motivated to advocate for the new strategy with their colleagues. A period of rapid innovation resulted.
Trait #2 – Enable Innovation Everywhere: Generate the best ideas on the fringes and in the field.
Employees witness problems every day. Sales people get feedback from customers. Operations leaders spot wasted work. Marketing teams watch brands fail to resonate. They come up with ideas to solve these problems in the moment – and unfortunately, “a moment” is about how long these ideas last because there’s no place to house the idea. If there is not a clear way for an employee’s idea to get from their head to a spreadsheet at corporate, the idea will go nowhere. Spreadsheets don’t foster collaboration and flexibility at scale. Great ideas die on the vine every single day for this reason.
Exelon, one of the leading energy companies in the U.S., has made innovation a deliberate priority since 2010. Each year, the company hosts an “Innovation Expo” gathering thousands of its employees in a convention center in various cities around the country. Chris Crane, the company’s CEO, said, “The annual Innovation Expo gives employees an outlet to test their ideas so we can effectively implement them in our work. It also presents employees an opportunity to learn from other industry professionals and experts, who can offer fresh insights on unlocking the potential of technology.” This year, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company will be hosting the event online, expecting more than a third of its workforce to participate.
Trait #3 – Evaluate Ideas Objectively: Align on the most important criteria and choose which ideas to invest in accordingly.
The political battles that plague large organizations will kill innovation in this new era. When the right projects are killed for subjective, personal reasons, you know there is a problem. You can’t make effective decisions in meetings where power dynamics are present. More importantly, there must be a framework in place to justify prioritization decisions from various stakeholders. Innovation thrives on diverse perspectives, but building consensus in a distributed virtual setting cannot rely on face-to-face slide marathons and discussion.
Jennifer Michaelis, director of innovation at C.H. Guenther & Son, a 100-plus year-old food company, needed to align its leadership team quickly on a new set of product ideas for the business. To avoid a game of Tetris with her schedule, Michaelis met with each leader individually to solicit their most important factors for project selection. She then synthesized that list into a weighted, objective set of criteria on what made something attractive and also gave confidence in the company’s ability to execute. The leadership team then evaluated each project individually (and on their own time) using the common criteria. After this process, the innovation executive said, “We just made a decision two months faster than we would have typically. Our battleship just turned like a jet-ski.” In order to win at innovation in the future, big companies need to be faster at adaptation—to do so at scale.
Trait #4 – Encourage Rapid Experimentation: Accept that all new ideas have flaws and employ techniques to reduce uncertainty.
New ideas are always full of uncertainties that need to be validated through a thoughtful process of trial and error. However, most large companies don’t have the patience to work through the messy part of building something from scratch. Risk mitigation is the prevailing mantra, making new and uncertain ideas repulsive. What we find are employees who assemble PowerPoint slides which encourage fact-sharing rather than asking questions to challenge the status quo. In turn, it prevents experimentation and learning approaches that lead to successful breakthroughs.
Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts (EA), said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech event, “Prior to COVID, my mental model was that creativity could only occur with teams meeting in person.” Teams got in the habit of getting in a room together to “work it out.” That option is no longer available, and there is an urgent need to find new ways to spur innovation in a virtual world. EA has pivoted remarkably to employ digital methods for rapid experimentation, resulting in unheralded output of two brand new games and 35 updates to current titles since March.
Trait #5 – Resource Projects Efficiently: Be biased towards action and streamline resource approvals.
Money and talent flow sluggishly slow through most companies. This is especially true for new ideas with high risk. Half of a corporate innovator’s battle is trying to divert resources from the core business to new, promising growth initiatives. And when they finally get approval, they are likely already behind. Review meetings full of slides will not solve this problem, especially in a virtual environment with distractions. In fact, they may make it worse.
Even the Food and Drug Administration has learned how to speed up approvals while minimizing the burden of bureaucracy. In 2017, the FDA streamlined its review pathway for consumer tests that evaluate genetic health risks (GHR), making it possible for companies to have a faster process to market certain direct-to-consumer genetic tests. In a statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., he stressed: “We’ve committed on several fronts to take a fresh look at how we regulate truly novel medical advances to ensure that the FDA is encouraging their development and creating pathways that are risk-based, efficient, and achieve the assurance of safety and efficacy… through a framework that is least burdensome.”
Innovation doesn’t happen through graphs and pivot tables – and the pandemic has shocked our systems, ramping up the urgency to work in new ways. Conventional tools aren’t cutting it, and they weren’t cutting it before – hence the emergence of innovation management platforms. The early incarnation of these focused solely on idea generation and few, if any, were developed to manage and guide the entire flow of innovation work. Measurable progress is made when teams drive new value within the business, and with customers. That comes through organization-wide behavioral shifts that can be enabled and supported by innovation management solutions like Forest.
The head of a major manufacturing company noted that Forest had reduced time needed in a key area of innovation by fifty percent, and they went from over sixty Excel, PowerPoint, and Word files to one single, up-to-date source of truth – in the cloud, in real time, and accessible to everyone in any location.
The appropriate set of behaviors – and the tools that enable them, such as Forest – will facilitate a strong survival and drive us into the next horizon of prosperity. Perhaps this crisis and remote working will continue to push innovation leaders in uncovering new possibilities amid unexpected change.
Peter Bryant is a managing partner at Clareo and an advisory board member for various startups, along with the leading VC firm Chrysalix.