How do you harmonise and accelerate innovation in corporate organisations?

Anyone given the responsibility to accelerate innovation in a large corporation quickly appreciates that they won’t start from scratch. As you survey your company landscape, you may see that a variety of well-intentioned teams such as “Lean Startup,” “Design Thinking,” or “Crowdsourcing” are within pockets, preaching practices. You don’t want to smother enthusiasm, but you’re now responsible for making choices about harmonising existing initiatives and conceptual models if innovation is to rise from tactical to strategic.

Your situation is not unique

As forward-thinking members of companies turn to innovation, it’s the norm that pockets of practice build up based on different approaches. As we began his organisation’s innovation capability assessment, a client at a large telecom company said, “You will find that when it comes to innovation, every potentially good thing is being done by at least one person! However, no two people are doing the same thing.”

In reality, accelerating innovation is difficult and systemic. There’s a real challenge posed by competing merits of allowing internal practitioners to use methods they are enthusiastic about and harmonising the approaches used across the organisation.

Guiding Principles What before how: It’s a mistake to focus too much on methods and not enough on outcomes. It’s important to understand what you’re trying to achieve. Then you can make informed judgments about which toolkit best delivers results. Our first step is conducting a Vision of Success workshop with leaders to identify scope, boundaries, desired results, and wanted or required culture changes.

Once “what” is specified, turn attention to developing an inventory of existing methods. Focus on understanding outputs (content, skills, behaviours) that each is equipped to deliver.

Match your organisation and culture: Depending on the nature of your organisation and its situation, it may not make sense to strive for uniformity in innovation approaches.

Process standardisation can create efficiency, speed an organisation up the learning curve, and simplify companies where employees move across functions or business units. However, it has shortfalls including motivation loss among practitioners and forfeiture opportunities to test multiple approaches. When the emphasis shifts from “creating and executing great opportunities” to “process compliance monitoring,” you have a problem.

Consider the following to learn if harmonisation fits your company, and what approach might work best:

  • How often do members work on innovation topics across organisational boundaries, or move through units as part of a career progression? How often would “pockets” of innovation practice interact?
  • Have implemented practices depended on clear and uniform processes, skilled individual practitioners, or collaboration?
  • Are you centralised or decentralised?
  • What’s been the history of central centres of excellence other than innovation in influencing unit-based practitioners to adopt harmonised practices?
  • Is dominant culture compliant, collaborative, or autonomous?
  • How embedded are communities of practice based on disparate innovation methods? How difficult would it be to gain support to harmonise approaches?

Extra care is needed when functional operating models and cultural elements aren’t aligned.

Use the innovation life cycle: Build approaches that bridge the innovation life cycle. If you’re not covering the significant “whats” that people in your organisation focus on, new communities of practice will proliferate another set of non-harmonized tools and processes.

Beware battling philosophies: One thing that’s lethal with a lack of harmonisation is duelling approaches based on different assumptions about what objectives are. It’s rare that a company can operate a model based on employee crowdsourcing and customer empathy along with one focused on functional specialists deploying technology roadmaps.

Specific Tactics Engage your practitioners: A big part of the solution to harmonisation challenges is involving practitioners who use a collaborative process of finding the best model. Start with building a shared view of “what” you’re trying to achieve with innovation at each point in the life cycle, then challenge the diverse participants to work together in a search for “truth” regarding the best tools for each job.

Deng Xiaoping states, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” While devotees of each method will tout virtues, a group dialogue based on the recognition that many different methods can be applied to yield a given “what” is more likely to succeed.

Use innovation to build innovation: If you have existing communities of practice, use them to accelerate innovation! Observe and participate in the work of different groups to see how they apply favoured techniques. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each in yielding desired outcomes. You might want to organise a competition where a similar challenge is given to different practice communities to see how they approach the problem and what results they achieve.

Build a blueprint and roadmap: Keep the innovation life cycle in mind and build a blueprint of preferred approaches for each element of it. You’ll be able to present a clear rationale and show how innovation capability building is about creating a coherent end-to-end capability, rather than a disconnected set of tools.

Build, manage against, and update a development roadmap. An end-to-end process capability won’t quickly emerge, — but a stepwise migration plan, used as an adaptive tool, will make the path clear (reducing employee resistance).

Pay attention to the handoffs: If you build a life-cycle approach from disparate pieces, make sure that handoffs work! We see breakdowns when one step of an innovation model generates outputs that don’t feed into the next — or when requirements of an earlier step have not been clear.

Consider a holistic approach: If existing pockets of practice are not too deeply embedded, go back to adopting an end-to-end innovation model built for the life cycle. We’ve implemented this integrated approach with many clients.

These approaches allow room to incorporate embedded practices and accelerate innovation. If there’s an established discipline, interfaces to other parts of our integrated model can be designed to build on available insights and skills rather than re-tooling them.


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