Pulse of Innovation: Upgrading an Established Innovation Program

November 11, 2019

Every so often we ask our community to sound off on popular topics in innovation and share their best tips, tricks, and advice in hopes that their answers may inspire others in the field. We’ve gathered these insights by email, over phone calls, at events and roundtables, and catching up with clients and colleagues.

Pretty much any company is doing innovation in one way or another. But there’s significant variation in the style, degree, and sophistication of innovation programs from one enterprise to another. For the best companies, innovation is a vital activity with a clear strategy, scaled processes, and a globally integrated portfolio. In less-than-perfect cases, “innovation” happens on an ad hoc basis (at best), with little coherence or coordination across groups.

Most companies are somewhere in between these extremes. They have well-established innovation program(s), but they’re still a long way from nirvana. What’s holding them back?

In our experience, there are common patterns that show up time and again. Some organizations have decades-old innovation habits in need of a refresh. Or, perhaps there’s a newly christened innovation function still in search of a sustainable mandate. In other cases, senior leaders are fighting over who “owns” the innovation mission, so the company struggles to activate larger, more strategic bets.

For this Pulse of Innovation post, we asked folks: what’s the best way to upgrade your innovation program? Here are the most prominent themes that emerged:

  • Elevate Innovation’s Metrics – Most innovation programs start with very simplistic KPIs based on activity-volume measures, like the proportion of initiatives that receive scale-up funding, or the volume of projects that have passed a certain stage gate. Over time, it becomes more feasible to expand into an elevated set of metrics. This may include connecting innovation’s performance with progress on strategic goals, measuring its contribution to financial outcomes like new product revenue, or assessing its ability to impact operational goals like customer retention.

  • Create an Executive Steering Committee – Some companies struggle to sustain a regular senior executive review of the innovation portfolio. But there are important benefits for the firms that do pull it off – not least the ability to gain organization-wide support for larger initiatives that tend to have the biggest impact.

  • Engage the “Frozen Middle” as Collaborators – Many innovation leaders lament middle-management’s penchant to kill promising innovations. Yes, it’s true that the “frozen middle” tends to be risk-averse. But they’re crucial to getting new initiatives launched. Consider spending personal time and political capital building collaborative, win-win relationships.

  • Solidify Core Innovation Processes – Even R&D and Innovation teams that have been around for decades have a predilection for hazy or unwritten operating guidelines. Establishing well-defined playbooks around proven methods, along with clear policies for how to work together, can unlock new successes that otherwise would have fizzled.

  • Clarify the Swim Lanes for Inbound Ideas – We often hear about innovation groups that are drowning in ideas – from both internal and external sources. When the inbound volume is too high, the team has trouble triaging anything, much less finding the gems. That’s when it’s time to tighten the guidelines for what types of innovation they’re interested in pursuing, and what they plan to do with the most promising proposals.

  • Improve Cross-Site Coordination – It has become increasingly common for companies to build networks of Innovation Labs or Innovation Centers around the world. Too often, these teams operate as disconnected islands. This can result in an ongoing stream of missed opportunities and chronic underperformance. Fortunately, there are ways to achieve scale and synergies that can boost results across the board.

Upgrading your innovation capabilities can be difficult, but it is possible if you know which levers to pull, and if you are persistent in pushing the changes required for success. The benefits can be substantial, in some cases incalculably large. Low-level improvements are fine. But they’re nothing compared to technology breakthroughs with the potential to shift an entire industry.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below. Check out our growing collection of Pulse of Innovation posts!

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay



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