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Trends: Nine Questions that Matter to Innovative Organizations

Question marks

When I attended the Innov8tors conference in Los Angeles which focused on sharing knowledge among corporate innovators who are working on innovation projects and leading innovation teams. Some emerging challenges came to light from the presentations, workshops and conversations.

While it would be great to have a simple answer to each of these questions, attending these discussions and presentations made it clear that while the questions are universal, the answers tend to be specific to each organization, business focus and unique culture.

  1. Who should be involved in innovation? While some organizations believe that innovation is everybody’s job, others think that it is best to have small dedicated teams with special skills, training and behaviors and are protected from the dominant culture of the organization. Others recognize that they need to partner with start-ups or incubators to bring the risk and novelty that may not come from inside the organization.

  2. What is the purpose and the role of innovation in your organization? While this may appear as an easy question, too often the purpose of innovation is not clearly defined and drives many of the ambiguities, structure and funding issues related to innovation. In her presentation, Janice Frazier from Bionic reminded us that ultimately for the CEOs, innovation is about making money, but clarity on the purpose is still critical. They understand that some of the projects may only pay out in the long run and some will lose money or fail. It is important to define the type of innovation you are focusing on (core, adjacent or transformational) because the approaches, criteria for funding mechanisms and level of risks are different. While transformational innovation is likely to bring significant revenue in the long term it is also the most risky and hardest to evaluate.

  3. What are the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and metrics to measure success? There is a wide acknowledgment that to be successful, an organization needs to measure success around innovation but the challenge is selecting meaningful KPIs. While they are different for each organization, traditional indicators measuring the “input” (such as number of employee trained) are not enough. It is more important to measure the outcome for instance looking at change of behavior in employees (i.e. who is able to suggest an idea, or how much time is dedicated to experiments…) or speed to market.

  4. How good is your organization at embracing early experimentation and testing? There was a consensus that it is important to adopt a fast prototyping, fail fast mentality if one wants to be successful with innovation projects. In an organization like Tower Willis Watson (a large consulting firm), this is best done with a small team that can adopt a start-up mentality while still benefiting from being part of a large organization. Barry O’Reilly from Exec camp describes this type of environment as “small batches and test culture”. Brant Cooper from Moves the Needle emphasized the concept of “meritocracy of ideas”, having the best ideas wins (through experimentation) rather than arguing which one is best.

  5. What is the best approach to funding innovation projects? Several speakers discussed the importance of a clear protocol for financing innovation projects. Barry O’Reilly (ExecCamp) recommends the “zombie approach” when projects are regularly reviewed and compared and some projects are “killed” to provide more funding for projects that are showing stronger potential (rather than keep funding many projects for a long time), therefore maximizing the odds of success.

  6. How to scale innovation? Jonathan Bertfield of Spinnaker presented a very interesting model to answer the question of when an organization is ready to scale up innovation. He explains that it is only when all elements of thinking, doing and being innovative are aligned for each key dimensions that scalability can happen, otherwise innovation will be limited by the weakest element (see model at Spinnaker.)

  7. How to create a start-up mentality in a large organization? Janice Frazier shared that none of the innovative approaches (i.e. accelerators, center of excellence, 20% time…) deliver hyper-growth because, no matter which approach is used, the ways the process is managed with a lot of planning, gate keepers and funding mechanisms, make it impossible to succeed. Only with a new protocol and by applying the lessons of venture entrepreneurship can projects succeed: what is needed is a dedicated team, a funding based on a clear process, “Unblockers” (including the CEO), who are willing to take risks, the right people that have a “pirates” mentality and the ability to kill zombie projects (projects that are not relevant anymore but keep taking funding away from new opportunities). Karen O’Leonard from Willis Tower Watson explained how having a very small team and limited funding require her to collaborate and convince others early on in their projects the same way a start-up would have to convince early investors, therefore insuring internal buy-in.

  8. Is Innovation more about ideas or problems? In his review of successful innovators, Greg Satell of Mapping Innovation emphasized that the only common elements successful innovators have in common is “a systematic and disciplined process to identify new problems”. He went on to explain that innovation is not about ideas but about the funding and resources around meaningful problems. As an example, Google gives free time to employees to work on problems with the idea that if many work on the same issue, it is likely that the problem is significant.

  9. Which process is best to help with innovation? From all the discussions and presentations, Design Thinking and Lean (and to a lesser extent Agile) appear to be the processes mostly used by the organizations attending the conference. A process cannot solve all your innovation challenges, but if you do not have a clear process shared through the organization (or at least those involved in innovation projects) where employees are trained AND have a chance to use the process regularly until it becomes a different way to think, it is unlikely you will succeed.

I hope this has given you some “food for thought” and that you can in turn wonder if any of these questions are being discussed in your organization now. Which one is worth reviewing with your team, your management or your clients right now?


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