One way that innovation teams can go off the rails is by ignoring the importance of alignment: they don’t ensure that their work is in sync with the organization’s strategy and delivering tangible results. And one way to ensure alignment is to think of the innovation initiative as a consumer-oriented business with colleagues as customers. In this framing, it’s critical to have a mandate and continued support from leadership — they are, after all, a very important “customer segment” — but success can’t be achieved with that alone. Instead, see if a wider variety of “customers,” both inside and outside the organization, are “buying” your products.
The suggestions below are consistent with this idea that everyone should be viewed as a potential customer, and that success, as with other business ventures, hinges on creating high-value products and solutions to meet customer needs and ensuring a high level of customer satisfaction.
Focus on value. As the first Chief Innovation Officer at Suffolk, a Boston-based construction firm with projects around the country, my focus was on working with others across the organization on ways to make the construction process safer and more efficient. I discovered that there are so many interesting ideas and technologies to work with that might have some applicability to those goals. But regardless of industry, it’s essential to focus on improving business outcomes in the key areas of the business — typically in the areas of financial performance, organizational productivity, quality delivery, and customer experience, and to establish ways to measure the impact across those dimensions. The ways you are measuring progress need to be in ways your internal and external customers care about. For example, at Suffolk, a critical focus for everyone is jobsite safety; introducing “smart video” technology that can determine when people aren’t complying with safety practices is both a useful tool and a foundation for more advanced predictive analytics.
Create a framework to progress an idea to implementation. It is much easier if there is “pull” for new solutions, which comes from working on opportunities which have the potential for significant impact for one or more of your customer segments. Using a phase-gate process as new ideas are pursued (e.g. idea – prototype – small scale implementation – scalable solution) is one way to ensure benefits are validated with more specificity as the process progresses, so that time and energy are spent in the areas most likely to generate enthusiasm and lead to adoption.
Invest in innovation infrastructure. A great way to identify high-value opportunities is to look across the entire organization, particularly the employees who work closest to the external customers and know the inefficiencies, challenges, and opportunities that exist. When we built out a series of innovation labs at Suffolk with leading-edge technology, staffed by passionate people with industry and technology knowledge, we created a space where everyone in the organization is able to share ideas, build on the work others are doing, as well as engage with technologies to better understand the “state of the possible.”
Build awareness to get greater engagement. If a tree falls in a forest when no one is around, no one knows if it makes a sound. The same can be said of the potential benefits of new solutions or technologies that few in the organization know exist. When people are aware of the innovative work you’re doing, it is more likely they will help evaluate and evolve the solutions which, in turn, creates an easier path to adoption. So marketing, relationship-building, and internal communications are three key areas where having the right talent as part of your team leads to better outcomes. You need people who can engage directly with the revenue-producing areas of the business; which builds more awareness with the employees who are best prepared to realize the benefits from the new solutions or technologies.
Partner across the organization. Delivering solutions and driving change is the result of many people working together. It’s this larger team that sees opportunities, overcomes challenges, and brings unique insights to the process to make change happen, for example to ensure a secure, connected, and adaptable technology architecture; training programs, support, measurement and tracking; and communication with the customers. Departments across the organization are partners who contribute unique skills, share the same customers, and are working toward the same ends.
Sit at the intersection of people, process, and technology. This is what brings it all together. A technology focus may be enough to get the early adopters on board; however, technology solutions alone will rarely win over the entire organization or market. For example, when I was the publisher of The Boston Globe, the newspaper re-launched its flagship bostonglobe.com site. We created a responsive design solution (compelling technology), changed our content management system (technology and process), and ensured that there was a strong distinction between the subscription-oriented bostonglobe.com and another well-established free site we ran, boston.com (different customer segments).
Marketers in your organization likely spend lots of time understanding the nuances of different customers who buy your products or services: they collect data, and they may even watch them go shopping or visit them at their workplace. Innovators, similarly, need to spend a substantial amount of time building an understanding of the internal and external customers they serve. These are busy people juggling lots of different priorities, and you need to not just make the case for why change needs to happen, you need to make it easy for them to participate and embrace it.
Successful innovation teams — whether they are working on products, services, improved processes, or new infrastructure — need to reach lots of “customers” who want to buy what they’re selling.
Chris Mayer is a Contributing Columnist and the former Chief Innovation Officer at Suffolk Construction. Prior to that, Mayer was President of New England Media Group and publisher of The Boston Globe.