Six innovation agenda items for 2016

How are you going to make change and deliver results in 2016?

Whether you work in an innovation group, new product development, strategy, or R&D, we believe that these issues deserve a place on your agenda for the year ahead.

1. Customers, not committees.

We hear about many companies where R&D or innovation committees, or “Shark Tank”-style panels, give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to new ideas before they can be seen by a single customer. But that means that many ideas with plenty of potential get shot down because of internal biases, or the possibility that they’ll conflict with an existing offering. A handful of companies have already begun to embrace the “lean startup” methodology, letting teams prototype ideas and put them in front of customers. That way, actual customer data, rather than baked-in biases, can inform any decisions about prioritization and appropriate resources.

2. How will you become the partner of choice?

When suppliers or customers want to co-create something new to solve a problem or seize an opportunity, do they approach you — or a rival? When startups want a partner to help run a pilot, or a university is looking to license its latest lab breakthrough, are you their first call? Being the partner of choice will increasingly separate leaders from also-rans. Two essentials: having a visible “point person” who is easy to contact, and having a streamlined (rather than high-friction) approach to collaborations. (We explore this issue in our research report on Working With Startups.)

3. Pave the taxiway.

Innovation and R&D groups may be good at design, cultivation, and tests, but when it comes to getting products and services to the market, they typically rely on business units. We like to use an airport metaphor: business units control the runway, and they’re pretty good at getting things to take off and land (roughly) on time. Innovation, R&D, and new product development often build nifty hangars where they design all kinds of cool aircraft. But the taxiway — getting things smoothly from the hangar to the runway — hasn’t yet been paved at many companies. It’s dirt. The right processes aren’t in place for reliably getting things out of the lab and into the market.

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4. Get serious about attracting the best.

Most companies do the same-old, same-old when it comes to bringing on interns, contractors, or full-time hires — listings on the Careers page, open houses, visits to campus recruiting events. Innovation and R&D teams need to be the ones who acknowledge the reality that most Global 1000 companies are not the top choice of today’s top talent, and set about changing that. Sometimes, this requires creating new work environments, or inventing new ways to engage with prospective hires that give them a taste for the kinds of challenges you intend to give them. If your innovation team is made up of 15-year company veterans, and your intrapreneurs have never worked for an actual startup, you have a problem. (See our recent Hiring Report for more on this topic, or this collection of advice.)

5. R&D needs to play nicely with others.

Unfortunately, at many companies, the R&D or Advanced Concepts team is seen as high-powered…but extremely insular. With their ten-year technology roadmaps and long-term academic partnerships, they wind up being tempting targets for budget cuts and staff reductions. R&D is the perfect group to host hackathons and set out engineering challenges, like Amazon’s recent Picking Challenge for warehouse robots. A former Disney R&D leader suggested to us the idea of putting accelerator programs or startups in close proximity to R&D — as a way to license out and potentially fast-track the commercialization of technologies that R&D develops. R&D shouldn’t be seen as a high-security, perfectly-manicured greenhouse, but rather a community garden where others can come in, bring their ideas and talents, and interact with the gardeners on your payroll.

6. The language is changing.

How is your team going to deliver new growth? Obviously, getting there may require betas, pilot tests, training workshops, and networks of innovation champions. But business leaders in many organizations need to hear — and believe — that the innovation team’s mission is growth, not just experimentation.

Agree with our agenda items? Disagree? Are there other things high on your priority list for 2016? Post a comment below…