by Nicholas D. Evans

4 key techniques for continuous improvement in corporate innovation

May 11, 2017
Digital TransformationEmerging TechnologyInnovation

If you’re leading a corporate innovation program for your organization, or you’re part of the core innovation team, one of the key considerations after it’s been up and running for a while is how to continuously improve and refine the program over time.

While there’s a lot of attention paid to how to design and implement corporate innovation programs, as well as how to run ongoing and event-based ideation (i.e., idea generation) sessions with various constituencies, there’s not so much written about how to effectively operate these programs and capabilities on a sustainable, year-over-year basis.

A corporate innovation program clearly needs to evolve and adapt over time to incorporate the latest developments in innovation management theory and practice, and to fine-tune the sights around innovation as customer needs, business needs and overall market conditions dictate.

Within my own organization, where I lead our client-facing innovation program, we’ve been running our own specialized version of Innovation Workshops for many years, conducting hundreds around the world across a wide range of vertical industries. Part of the program’s success and longevity has been due to its highly collaborative nature as well as continuous improvement guided by a customer-centric and outside-in mindset.

To help with your own planning, here are four key techniques we’ve utilized to continuously improve and refine our program over time.

Continuously adjust the sights around innovation as customer needs and market conditions dictate

In one form or another, most organizations have had a corporate innovation program for many years. Recent corporate innovation objectives, however, have all gravitated toward digital transformation. So how should an existing program change or be fine-tuned to most effectively support digital transformation both now and in the years ahead?

As I’ve explored in my new book, “Mastering Digital Business,” a strategic guide for the next wave of digital transformation, it’s important to ensure that the innovation program delivers the transformative outcomes required of digital business. This may necessitate revisiting the measurements and metrics around your innovation program and adjusting where necessary. 

You may also want to accelerate your average cycle time for commercialization or operationalization, and also change the relative mix of what goes into the innovation pipeline, what gets commercialized and how you measure it.This means that you may need to revisit your innovation focus in terms of the degree of innovation (i.e., disruptive vs. incremental) and the type of innovation (i.e., business model, process, products, services and so on) that you pursue.

The goal is to ensure that your innovation program is enabling and accelerating your digital transformation objectives with a strong linkage into corporate strategy and execution. Strategy should guide the focus of the innovation program (e.g., various innovation campaigns) and the innovation program should provide feedback to strategy as to what’s resonating with customers and gaining traction (e.g., initial proofs of concept, pilots and minimum viable products, also known as MVPs).  

Incorporate new developments in innovation management theory and practice

The discipline of innovation management is continuously evolving. While open innovation, in my opinion, is the most enduring and well-proven approach upon which to build, in recent years we’ve seen the rise of innovation-related practices such as design thinking, lean startup and “permissionless innovation,” among others.

It’s important to monitor these new approaches and incorporate their best elements into your program. This doesn’t mean replacing your entire innovation vocabulary or practices in a copycat fashion and throwing the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater.” It does mean intelligently applying the most useful elements of these techniques and incorporating them into your existing program.  

As an example, lean startup techniques may help you move more quickly to an MVP or may help you to find an external home for IP that you’ve decided is non-core to the business. More general lean techniques can also be applied to ensure that your ideation sessions are suitably lean in terms of people, process and technology and provide a useful continuum of capabilities ranging from rapid, virtual sessions to more lengthy, in-person sessions as appropriate for your specific session objectives and participants.

As another example, “permissionless innovation” may be incorporated as a strategy to scale a new platform business model whereby your end users and customers can innovate on top of your platform by building additions and extensions or even new applications in a  manner similar to GE’s Predix platform and operating system for the Industrial Internet.

Digitally transform your innovation program

Next, the innovation program itself should be digitally transformed. Just like any long-term initiative within an organization, it needs to continually evolve and adapt to meet the needs of the business at any specific time. Elements of your innovation program may come and go year-over-year based on their level of adoption and benefits realized by the corporation. Some examples are elements such as innovation portals, databases, communities, scouts and brokers and so on. You can expect these to constantly evolve and adapt.

We have found that the elements that have the best longevity are typically those designed to allow for intrinsic customization. As an example, innovation workshops that have a methodology and toolset designed to allow for a high degree of customization in terms of the key focus areas for each workshop can easily support a wide range of topics and objectives over time.

While the content of the innovation ideas that flow through each workshop may be very different, the design principle should be such that the structured approach and toolset within the workshop methodology can be consistent and provide the necessary levels of quality, consistency and repeatability.

Where you focus your teams’ time is also highly important. In a recent article entitled “The future of innovation management software,” I looked at how organizations are starting to shift their focus away from the table-stakes and grunt work of idea management to the more productive front-end and back-end of innovation in terms of “where to play” and “how to scale.” This shift in focus to the front and back end of the innovation lifecycle is another useful technique to ensure strong connection into corporate strategy and execution.

Continuously communicate with your various innovation stakeholders

Finally, since all organizations are essentially living, breathing entities with a workforce that’s constantly changing, it’s important to continuously communicate with this audience to share the strategy, describe the approach, gain consensus and buy-in, motivate, gain feedback, prove the value, share best practices and case studies, train and educate, and empower the organization.

With new leaders coming in and changes in the workforce, it’s often important to re-educate the organization on the goals and objectives of the program, what’s available, what’s new, and how it can help them achieve or accelerate their business objectives. This is where you want to build strong relationships with all your innovation stakeholders. Prior successes and case studies can be highly valuable in myth-busting and proving the value in cases where corporate antibodies are present.

Overall, it’s this human element that’s perhaps the most important in continuously improving any innovation program. Close attention to this human element can help you gain champions and advocates for the program, and develop a culture that maximizes the benefit of the program to your corporate objectives.