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Three Secrets of Digital Innovators

Creating the conditions for and harnessing innovation isn't easy, especially for large organizations. Innovation Accelerators — companies that are committed to innovation across the enterprise — take a managed, structured approach. That may seem contradictory — after all, isn't innovation supposed to be creative and spontaneous? Creative, yes, but if you rely on spontaneous combustion to light your innovation process, your results will be uneven at best.

IdeaFunnel

This is the time of new products, new services, new business models. Digital makes all of that possible. That means both opportunity and disruption for existing organizations. To make the most of this (and not be blind-sided), Innovation Accelerators do three things that others don't.

  1. They use a big funnel, tapping company employees and customers for new ideas. “We don't prejudge who might be able to solve the problem," said a department leader at a large U.S. government agency that uses both internal and external crowd-sourcing to tackle technical challenges.
  2. They have mechanisms to bring all those ideas to the attention of the right people to evaluate, prioritize and act on. A regional grocery chain that finds itself competing now with the likes of Walmart and Amazon uses an enterprise social networking/collaboration tool to move ideas quickly from the edge (store managers, associates and customers) to the center of the organization. All executives receive a daily digest of posts culled from the tool; the contents are discussed at executive staff meetings. Similarly, many companies have set up innovation hubs - online forums where employees can post suggestions and ideas to be evaluated and prioritized by an innovation team or, sometimes, by the employees themselves, through voting mechanisms and "likes."
  3. They value diversity of thought. Innovation Accelerators know that problems and opportunities are best tackled when viewed from multiple perspectives. Some companies have instituted cross-functional digital innovation boards to evaluate and prioritize the ideas they have collected in that big funnel. These are no ivory-tower groups with their heads in the clouds. They're made up of front-line business leaders who deal with the daily needs of customers and the business.

Diversity of thought and perspective is valuable at the project level as well. A consumer goods company with an IT budget of less than 1.5% of revenue runs “innovation challenges" in which a cross-functional team works together for four or five days to solve a specific business problem. Sometimes the teams include customers. As ideas show promise, they earn more investment. When I spoke with the company's director of sales and marketing technology, about a third of the challenges they'd run had yielded commercial products. An important side benefit was that it had taught people to work differently, and that had carried over into their everyday lives.

Innovation Process_Big Funnel

In next week's post, I'll talk more about the commercialization of IT.

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