Don’t get me wrong, organizational structure with job functions and some kind of hierarchy is useful for conductingbusiness as usual. People have specific roles to play in serving yourcustomers. However, when it comes to innovation, the structure is less useful, because by definition, innovation is not business as usual.
So how do you make use of that structure when it comes to innovation? Who is best positioned to generate and develop ideas?
You shouldn’t be surprised to hear my answer. After all this blog is called No Guru Needed, Anyone Can Lead Innovation!
With a system in place, anyone from any department at any level within your organization could lead your next successful innovation project.
That’s because when you have a system that enables people, so anyone with the energy and passion for an idea is able to explore it.
How can this possibly work?
Well, I’ve seen innovation thrive inside organizations who don’t have a guru when…
- People are aligned towards a strategic mission that is bigger than any one department.
- There are defined roles that people step into, temporarily, when they have an idea they’d like to investigate. And,
- The criteria for advancing an idea has already been pre-defined.
So, let’s unpack each of these separately.
1. People are aligned towards a strategic mission that is bigger than any one department.
Strategic Missions are what we use within Innovation Engineering to drive new ideas and solutions. They are for the benefit of the company, and should have the spirit and DNA of the company culture embedded within them. The mission is typically bigger than any one department, and serves to unite the company in seizing an opportunity. An organization will typically have multiple strategic missions, and they often resonate with employees’ own goals, values and aspirations for the company.
People volunteer to work on Strategic Missions, because you can’t force someone to get excited about something when they aren’t. In the ideal scenario, you’ll have a group of people from different departments, job functions, and seniority levels who want to tackle the mission.
2. There are defined roles that people step into, temporarily, when they have an idea they’d like to investigate.
Roles are defined for the temporary purpose of driving an idea forward. Within Innovation Engineering, we use a three-role structure. The person with the original spark of an idea, who wants to chase down the potential is called the Project Leader. This person is the mini-CEO or entrepreneur of the idea, and is responsible for making the decisions and trade offs when it comes to the customer benefits, product features and financials related to it. This person can come from anywhere in the organization.
But this person will need some help.
So, within Innovation Engineering, we assign two coaches to the Project Leader. They get a Management Coach, who can help identify the real issues, and also help the Project Leader gain access to information or other resources. This person typically sits a little higher on that organization chart we talked about earlier.
And the second coach is an expert at the company’s internal process for innovation - we call this one a Process Coach. The Process Coach helps the Project Leader navigate the innovation process to ensure we are performing the appropriate actions at every phase of the project. This person brings discipline and enforces documentation of the project’s progression.
And finally, 3. If the criteria for advancing an idea has already been pre-defined.
This might be the most influential part of your entire innovation system. The criteria for defining, discovering and developing ideas should be well defined. The alternative is a sort of corporate wild west where teams use different formats to communicate their ideas, and different types of evidence or test results to convince others of the merits of their ideas. The whole thing inevitably turns political because personal relationships become essential to advancing certain projects. This demotivates most people in the organization from even getting involved.
Instead, if you set up common criteria AND common test systems for projects, everyone will know the rules of the game from the start. The criteria and testing mechanisms should be different for core improvement projects versus leap or disruptive innovation projects as they have different levels of risk and reward.
Within Innovation Engineering, our criteria is structured around addressing three different types of risk; Market Risk, Technology Risk and Organization Risk. Each Project Leader has to address each type of risk using a pre-defined set of tests.
This may sound like a lot of formal structure, and at first, it is. But in time, it all becomes ritualized within the organization. And your people will see opportunities for getting engaged in new ways.
I often hear the following sentiment from a person who has had the opportunity to lead a project for the first time in his/her career. I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this, “For the first time, I wasn’t Jane from the accounting department, I was just Jane…who had a cool idea for the company.”
It takes time, and patience but eventually new habits will take root.