I know your job is demanding. Shareholders, breathing down your neck for short-term financial results, media hounds, observing your every move for the next cover story, and competitors, nipping at your heels.
And if that’s not enough, the economy’s ups and downs are pushing up raw material costs; your supplier might be affected by the war in Europe and the battle for talent remains intense.
And yet, here I am, knocking on your door to speak about corporate innovation with you. While this might be your least pressing priority right now, establishing an innovative company without you is… impossible!
The good news? You don’t need to be the next Einstein or come up with all the ideas yourself. Instead, leverage the intelligence of your biggest company asset: your employees. Encouraging your team to think creatively, solve problems proactively, and promote intrapreneurship, can trigger a tidal wave of innovation across the company.
Just look at Gmail, Mastercard and even the Nespresso you’re holding – all of these were born from projects spearheaded by employees.
Just look at Gmail, Mastercard and even the Nespresso you’re holding – all of these were born from projects spearheaded by employees. Fostering a culture of innovation leads to greater success in tackling current challenges and helps to attract and retain top talent.
The bad news: Employee-driven innovation is not a piece of cake. It is neither done by hiring a consultancy, nor by installing idea management software. As the CEO, you play a critical role in making it happen.
Let me tell you a story that’s unfortunately all too common: The CEO announces: “Dear employees, you’re the biggest asset of our company. We need your ideas!” Hundreds of innovators eagerly submit their ideas, only to have management reject 90 percent of them. “No strategic fit,” they say. “We don’t have the resources.” “I wouldn’t buy it.” “We’ve tried that before.” The result? Frustrated employees and a “game-of-luck-like” innovation program. Good luck with the chosen five projects.
To encourage employees to bring their absolute A-game, by submitting, validating, and executing ideas, you too need to set an example. Nobody will want to take a swing at innovation if they’re afraid they’ll miss it completely and get benched. Hence, you should be a leader who creates a vision and an open space to test, fail, and learn!
Following idea submission, create a first phase, where employees are given controlled (yet limited) freedom (time/money/resources) to test their idea and collect data. This will help you make educated, data-driven decisions while boosting employee morale and learning.
Fostering an innovative culture also eliminates the need for an expensive innovation team, as ideas come from everywhere in the organization. Relying solely on a dedicated team with only a select few responsible for innovating can be counterproductive; it can silo perspectives and expertise.
As someone who regularly engages with CEOs like yourself, I can imagine your single most pressing question: “What about ROI?”
While I don’t want to dampen your spirits, focusing on short-term ROI calculations may not be the best approach. When starting out, it takes time to de-risk raw ideas and select those that have potential in the real world. Rather than focusing solely on output-driven metrics, it is more important to minimize the risk of “innovation theater” — the danger of creating an innovation program that is all show and no substance.
To do this, you should put focus on other measures including:
1. Funnel health: Let’s start by comparing the innovation funnel to a more familiar concept: the sales funnel. A full sales funnel allows you to assess leads early on, enabling you to focus and increase your confidence in potentially closing a deal. But it doesn’t stop there: through Nme, data collection, and experience, you can predict your conversion rates, allowing you to determine precisely how many leads are necessary for you to reach your set targets.
Similarly, an innovation funnel functions by sourcing as many ideas as feasible, testing them in a cost-effective and lean manner, and driving the concepts forward based on data. As you gain experience, you will learn how many employee concepts are required to execute two to three projects per year. As a result, innovation becomes more predictable and less of a game of luck.
Metrics for measuring funnel health include the number of ideas submitted, the quality of these ideas, speed of progression through the separate phases and the percentage of ideas implemented. A healthy idea funnel should show a steady flow of incoming ideas and a speedy progression through each phase.
2. Transformational impact: Establishing an environment where every individual can innovate helps to transform the overall company culture. The value of it can be measured by determining the number of people the program has reached and upskilled. You will be surprised what a valuable learning experience the process of idea validation can be, since the retention rate of hands-on learning is 75 percent, according to research. Be aware that innovation is a long-term commitment – a marathon and not a sprint.
While we both know this is difficult to defend, given the pressures of running a business in our results-driven world; short-sightedness in innovation can be costly — not least in terms of missed opportunities and a lack of experimentation.
I need not mention the example of Kodak; who famously missed their opportunity to invest in digital photography, despite being an industry frontrunner in the traditional film industry.
Considering this, it is crucial to be held accountable in the mid-term for your innovation program. The time of engaging in innovation solely for show, is over. After one to two years, you should carefully review the output in terms of executed projects. If you followed the structure outlined above, you will find a strong input-output correlation. Not to mention the motivated and up-skilled employees and the recognition as a progressive employer within the job market.
• It is high time to do away with selecting a small group of “corporate rebels,” placing them in a fancy innovation hub and expecting them to be creative on demand.
• It is high time to quit playing innovation theater and tackle the subject in a data-driven way.
• It is high time to differentiate between short-term (funnel health, transformational impact) and long-term metrics (business impact) in innovation.
What’s required? A fun way to engage your staff, a gamified method to de-risk ideas, and you! A CEO who not only fulfills the role of a manager, but also that of a leader. Be the face of the future.
Ralph Hartmeier is Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer at rready, where he leads the marketing efforts and strategic projects & partners to take rready to new heights. Before founding rready, Ralph was part of the core team at Swisscom who started and scaled their intrapreneurship program called Swisscom Kickbox, which built the base for rready. After having supported hundreds of intrapreneurs at Swisscom and achieving great success cases, the team brought the product to market with the VC-backed venture rready. Ralph holds a Master’s degree from the University of St. Gallen (HSG).