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

Gary Getz, Strategos

Gary Getz, Strategos

Your Situation Is Not Unique

For better or worse, your starting situation is far from unique!  As forward-thinking members of companies turn their attention to innovation, it is the norm that pockets of practice build up based on different innovation approaches.  As a favorite client of ours in a large telecom company told us as we began an innovation capability assessment of his organization: “If you look deep enough in our company you will find that when it comes to innovation, every potentially good thing is being done by at least one person! But no two people are doing the same thing…”

To some extent, innovation authors and consultants are to blame for this phenomenon. There is no shortage of vendors who pitch point solutions and branded tools as comprehensive answers to innovation challenges. For practitioners, it’s tempting to believe that filling in a customer journey map or business model canvas will make them innovators.  In reality, building an innovation is both more difficult and systemic. There is a real challenge posed by the competing merits of allowing internal practitioners to use methods they are enthusiastic about and harmonizing the approaches used across the organization.

Guiding Principles

What before how. Tools and methods are useful, but it’s a mistake to focus too much on methods and not enough on outcomes. Even in a situation where practices are already embedded in pockets, 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 to conduct a Vision of Success workshop with leadership to identify scope, boundaries, desired business results, and desired or required innovation culture changes. 

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

Match your organization and culture. A heretical thought: depending on the nature of your organization and its situation, it may not make sense to strive for uniformity in innovation approaches. 

Process standardization can create efficiency, speed an organization up the learning curve with specific innovation practices, and simplify companies where employees regularly move across functions or business units. But, it has shortfalls including motivation loss among practitioners and forfeiture opportunities to test multiple approaches. Additionally, when the emphasis shifts from “creating and executing great opportunities” to “process compliance monitoring,” you have a problem.

Consider the following to get a sense of how harmonization fits your company, and what approach might work best:

  • How frequently do members work on innovation topics across organizational boundaries, or move through units as part of a career progression? How often would “pockets” of innovation practice interact?

  • Have successfully implemented practices depended directly on clear and uniform processes, skilled individual practitioners, or effective collaboration?

  • Is your company centralized or decentralized?

  • What’s been the history of central centers of excellence other than innovation in influencing unit-based practitioners to adopt harmonized practices?

  • Is your 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 harmonize approaches?

Special care is needed when functional operating models and elements of culture are not aligned.

Cover the innovation life cycle. Be sure to build a suite of innovation approaches that bridge across the entire innovation life cycle. If you’re not covering the major “whats” that people in your organization are focused on, you’ll find that new communities of practice are proliferating another set of non-harmonized tools and processes.

Beware battling philosophies. One thing that is lethal with a lack of harmonization is when dueling approaches are based on different assumptions about what innovation’s objectives are. It’s rare that an organization can operate an innovation model based on employee crowdsourcing and customer empathy side by side with one that depends on functional specialists deploying technology roadmaps. Competition is fine, but conflict based on different design premises guarantees frustration.

Specific Tactics

Engage your practitioners. A big part of the solution to harmonization 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’s axiom 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.

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

Build a blueprint and roadmap. Keep the innovation life cycle in mind and build a blueprint of options and preferred approaches for each element of it. By doing this, you’ll be able to communicate a clear rationale for “right tool for right job” and show how innovation capability building is about creating a coherent end-to-end capability rather than amassing a disconnected set of tools.

Build, manage against, and update a development roadmap. An end-to-end process capability won’t emerge in just months —but with a stepwise migration plan used as an adaptive management tool, the path will be clear (reducing employee resistance or improvisation). 

Pay attention to the handoffs. If you do build an overall life-cycle approach from disparate pieces, make sure that handoffs work! Too often, we see breakdowns when one step of an innovation model generates outputs that do not feed seamlessly into the next—or when the requirements of a subsequent step on those earlier in the process flow have not been made clear.

Consider a holistic approach. If existing pockets of practice are not too deeply embedded, consider going back to principles of adopting an end-to-end innovation model built for the innovation life cycle. Strategos has developed and implemented this integrated approach with many clients over 20 years. Other firms also take this approach with a counterpoint to point-solution providers. 

These approaches allow room to incorporate embedded practices. If there is a well-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.

While the road ahead can look daunting, the starting point always needs to be “innovation to achieve what.”

Gary Getz is a Partner and the CEO of Strategos with twenty-five years of experience as a marketer, strategist, and consultant. Innovation Leader regularly publishes Thought Leadership pieces written by our Strategic Partner firms.