Buyer Beware: 3 Questions to Ask Before Choosing an Innovation Platform


Impulse shopping often ends poorly. We have all been there: placing late-night Amazon orders for kitchen gadgets we won’t use, buying junk-food at the market while we’re hungry, or getting those sort-of-ugly shoes that were marked down 75 percent that we end up never wearing.

These types of purchases end up being a waste of money because the value we imagine is not what we realize.

Doug Williams, Founder, Ideation Partners.

When it comes to innovation platforms, impulse buying can be a costly mistake. I know what you’re thinking: all of these platforms do pretty much the same thing, so just pick one that fits the budget and let’s go. But what I have learned over the last 12 years — as a director of professional services at an innovation software provider and as the first analyst covering innovation software at Forrester — is that it’s not that simple. The 80/20 rule applies here: about 80 percent of the functionality of these tools are very much the same. What matters is how relevant the remaining 20 percent is to you.

With that in mind, there are three high-level questions to ask yourself when considering innovation software:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish?
  2. How does the work tied to my program objectives translate into my requirements for innovation software?
  3. What type of help do I need to get the most value from this investment?

Let’s dig into these one by one.

What am I trying to accomplish?

Before deciding on a tool, you must first understand whether you even need one. Organizations that get the most value from purchasing innovation software start by defining their objectives. If you don’t know what you hope to achieve, you can’t possibly pick the right tool for the job. The OGSM framework is a helpful approach for defining your program’s intentions over a specific period of time. OGSM stands for Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures. It enables a team to discuss and align on why the program exists and what it is trying to do (and just as important, what it isn’t trying to do).

If you don’t know what you hope to achieve, you can’t possibly pick the right tool for the job. 

Objectives help us understand what we care about and serve as program guideposts. Examples of objectives for an innovation program might include

  • Create new sources of revenue
  • Reduce cost through operational innovation
  • Improve our culture of innovation
  • Expand innovation opportunity with external partnerships
  • Increase the pace of innovation from idea to implementation.

One or more goals are then identified for each objective. Goals should be clear and measurable, so you can actually determine whether the goal was achieved. For example, goals related to improving innovation culture – a notoriously “fuzzy” concept – might include improving your Gallup employee engagement scores by 10 percent, or involving 50 percent of the company in ideation initiatives in the coming year.

Strategies are the actions you define that will help you achieve each respective goal; you may have one or more strategy defined for each goal.

Finally, the measures are those things you can and will track based on the actions you are taking to achieve the goals aligned to the objectives. When done correctly and completely, the OGSM model will serve as a map for all work done by the program team.

How does the work tied to my program objectives translate into my requirements for innovation software?

The tail most certainly does not wag the dog here. Use the knowledge provided by the OGSM model to figure out where you need help executing your strategies. For example:

  • What are your needs regarding front-end ideation?
  • Do you require flexible ideation tools that cover numerous aspects of human-centered design, or are you only interested in formalized ideation?
  • What size groups will you be engaging?
  • Will you be running live workshops or asynchronous challenges, or both?
  • Will you be working with internal employees, external groups, or both?
  • What measures are you focused on, and how do the reporting capabilities of the software align to that?
  • Are we familiar with the reporting system, or do you need to invest resources into learning a new one?
  • Are you interested in or responsible for tech scouting?
  • How can the tool’s data analytics surface insights to drive new actions?
  • What options exist to democratize use of the tool?

These and other questions will ultimately define your capability requirements for the software. Be cautious of the 80/20 rule discussed above. You can avoid evaluating and comparing most aspects of the post/comment/vote/review/select process, unless there are very specific features you care about (i.e., lack of token voting is a deal-breaker).

Instead, consider the 20 percent of what else can they do, and rule them in or out of consideration based on those factors. Vendors whose platforms have capabilities that do not align with your objectives, goals, and strategies are of no value to you. Not only will that functionality go unused, but it also means that the vendor will be devoting scarce development resources to those inconsequential areas of functionality – and away from things that you care about.

Looking for the 20 percent functionality offered by vendors that align with your needs should give you a short-list, and from there you can dig into some of the nuanced features to ensure you make the right choice for your program.

What type of help do I need at the program level to be successful?

There are three areas where ideation/innovation teams need help:

1. Learning the technical aspects of the software to enable configuration and execution of activities. This learning is often done through formal or self-paced training provided by the vendor. It is worth the investment in time and energy here to really understand how the tool works in order to take full advantage of all it can do.

2. Learning and adopting best practices for success using the software. This bucket includes things like proper process designs, communications and engagement strategies, moderation and facilitation skills, and key tasks that aren’t tied specifically to the software, but which ensure good outcomes when using the software. These services are available both from vendors (through a professional services or customer success team) and outside consultancies. And, given that these types of tools have been out in the market for more than a dozen years, we are now getting to the point where experienced individuals now already possess this knowledge, and they build on their knowledge through helpful communities like InnoLead.

Where organizations often stumble is in failing to put enough emphasis on building and scaling an internal capability relating to their innovation program, including sponsorship alignment/support and cultural readiness for change. 

3. Building a sustainable program that creates a new way of working within your organization. Here we are talking about deeper consulting offerings that build up key program capabilities relating to things like program strategy, sponsorship, governance, process design, idea implementation, program value measurement and realization, employee activation and engagement to prepare for ideation/crowdsourcing, culture changes, and skill-building. These types of services are far too in-depth for most vendors’ professional services or customer success teams, as they extend well beyond the parameters of the software and don’t fit the SaaS scalability model. Consultancies are the better bet here, as they have the resources as well as the depth of knowledge needed to accelerate program growth and achieve the value delivered by your program objectives. Investments in these areas pay big dividends by creating a higher ROI, while simultaneously protecting your investment in your software of choice.

Few would argue that some level of training is required when purchasing innovation software. Your need for “success practices” coaching today will largely depend on the experience of your team and the strategies you are pursuing.

Where organizations often stumble is in failing to put enough emphasis on building and scaling an internal capability relating to their innovation program, including sponsorship alignment/support and cultural readiness for change. Unfortunately, companies that take a more tacit approach often get distracted along the way, and once-promising programs end up dying on the vine within two to three years – and sometimes faster. Similarly, this same outcome can happen when the tool is offered as a shared service by IT. Microsoft Word, Salesforce, and Concur are the software equivalents to paring knife, whisk, and can opener – everyone knows how those tools work and when to use them. An innovation platform is more like a mandoline slicer: it’s a tool uniquely designed for a particular job, but people need to understand how and when to use it. If it’s just sitting there in the toolbox, it may never get used. As programs mature, it is possible to evolve closer to a shared service model for certain innovation tools – but that could take a number of years.

Organizations that seize the opportunity to invest in program growth see high levels of engagement, strong innovation pipeline development, and the capability to track and measure value realization.

A good growth partner will be worth the investment, because they will help establish the right beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets linked to achieving your objectives, thus ensuring program success and de-risking the implementation of the software as well. 

When it comes to innovation software, don’t be an impulsive shopper. Take the important first step of defining your program objectives, goals, strategies, and measures. Then, figure out what tools and functionality will help you achieve those objectives, and disregard vendors whose focus lies elsewhere. Finally, carefully consid

Doug Williams is Founder of Ideation Partners. He was previously Director of Ideation at Lumevity, Director of Professional Services for Planview/Spigit, and an analyst at Forrester Research and Innovation Excellence. (Featured image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.)