Building a Viable Innovation Approach

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A visitor to Bromford Lab on Friday asked a truly killer question:

What qualifies you to be the innovators?

It’s a great challenge. None of my present team have any formal background/education in innovation management.

The first part of the answer is the best innovation teams I have seen are absolutely NOT the innovators. Instead they are the facilitators who take disjointed and often fruitless efforts to jump-start innovation (hackathons, brainstorm sessions, suggestion boxes) and turn them into an engine.

They are the ones who help identify the wicked problems a company has.

They map the, often under-utilised, assets the organisation has at its disposal.

They fuse these together using fresh thinking to create more value than what went before.

Doing this requires a certain set of skills and behaviours.

For me it’s these:

Someone who can establish the strategy of an engaged innovation programme. Someone committed to bringing in new partnerships and collaborations that will make a commanding difference. In the public sector at least — duplication of work is no longer financially or morally justifiable, you need the skills to build on the findings of others.

Someone with the presence to become the “go-to” person for the entire programme. Someone who will stop people procrastinating and going down rabbit holes. Creativity is not innovation — you need someone who can take disparate ideas and turn them into impact - ruthlessly abandoning ill-conceived ventures. A slayer of potential zombies.

This is the skillset that in my experience most organisations neglect. This person needs to be able to build, prototype and test concepts to tell whether they meet strategic objectives. They need to be fast — handling multiple concepts at the same time. They need to be able build, and demonstrate, a minimum viable product that shows something has a chance of success, or is too weighted with potential failure.

Internal innovation requires co-ordination to obtain insight and support from senior leaders. We need a skill that actively listens and brings in colleagues from all around the organisation as well as customers and other partners. This needs its own feedback loop — if you don’t tell people what you’ve done with their ideas and contributions you will use all legitimacy.

As Deming said — without data you’re just a person with an opinion. Every change programme, every organisation, lab, hub, funder and think tank must show how we solve problems for people, how we realise savings. Stories are great — but innovation approaches need a solid skill in data analysis to identify problems and validate successes.

Many innovation efforts fail to scale when they leave the protective environment of a Lab or accelerator. They are now entering a hostile world full of existing business process, legacy IT and people resistant to change. Anyone can have ideas and contribute to an innovation process, not many can implement.

It’s highly unlikely that you are going to find all these skills in a single person — indeed it would be undesirable. Innovation thrives through diversity and disagreement — not a lazy consensus.

With effort though you should be able to identify these skills in your organisation and assemble them in a way , not necessarily through a conventional team, that turns disparate efforts into a programme.

Oh — and a final behaviour you need. The ability to have fun. All this could be incredibly earnest and hard work.

Innovation is about arousing passions, creating discord, and turning the heat into product. You need to celebrate failure as well as success and engage a wide variety of stakeholders in different ways.

Work in the open, be inventive in the ways you communicate, and never take yourself too seriously.

Written by

Innovation Coach and Co-Founder of @BromfordLab. Follow for social innovation and customer experience.

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