You can follow any innovation method accurately and nevertheless you can fail. This means that there is no single recipe for innovations that guarantees success. This does not happen for manufacturing recipes. Therefore, innovations are different.
The reason for this is that innovations are like building a car whilst already driving. I.e., the solution is unknown and must be discovered while already applying it. Hence, all existing methods are only general guidelines and not exact recipes for success.
This article is no exception to that. It is nevertheless a summary of our learnings from past projects. In these projects, we detected four common steps, which we describe in the rest of this article.
STEP 1: ENVISION AND CONCEIVE THE FUTURE
Where do our paths lead us? How do we know if we are still on the right track? Orientation requires a target. An envisioned state that sets the direction. Even if the way and not the target is the focus, the way needs a direction. For this reason, you must start by envisioning your future. Develop your picture of tomorrow. The second pillar is a clear understanding of the current status, which defines your starting point. Here it is important to draw this picture honestly. Do not blame anybody, if the current status does not match your aspirations.
Impact on innovation culture:
The analysis of the current state is the starting point of your journey together. You want to start this endeavor as a team, not as opponents. In this very first step, you create the dynamics which evolve into your future business environment. For this reason, the HOW is the most important part of it.
Additionally, involving your team or your whole company in envisioning the future is a great chance to spark new motivation and loyalty. When your team has the chance to shape the vision, it becomes their own vision. Invite openly to the table.
This means that you create a culture in this phase by involving others and incorporating their opinions. Make your employees with all their expertise feel heard and tighten external relationships with trustful dialogues about joint innovations. Turn those affected into participants.
Start with interviews in the targeted market segments to uncover the needs. Do not sell anything in these interviews. Instead, make it an open and empathic conversation. These customer discovery interviews reveal invaluable market insights and are the first step towards building trust and a solid understanding.
Involve your employees in the strategy reviews by publicly announcing the date and agenda of your strategy workshop with a call to action for input and ideas. This allows for strategically valuable idea campaigns instead of separated idea campaigns.
Trust your employees and your customers. The wisdom about your future directions is most probably already somewhere hidden in your company.
STEP 2: ENGAGE AND SPARK THE FIRE
Engage all required stakeholders in your envisioned future. This is the phase to greatly start the inspiration and passion for a common vision as the gravitation center of an entire team or a company. Now, the actual innovation projects start. New teams are formed, and new endeavors are started with hopes and expectations.
Impact on innovation culture:
In this phase, the visions touch the ground for the first time. Nobody knows the perfect answers yet. Facilitating fast progress with demanding goals is good and requires a kind approach to non-achievement. Since there are no results yet, you have only your HOW to shape the culture. How you interact with others and how you serve as a role model to others is crucial. Since the teams just start working together, the team culture is still highly shapeable, which is a great chance.
Ask yourself who will be affected by the results of the new project that is just about to start. A very often overlooked group of stakeholders are sales colleagues. Every offer that is sold by sales forces has not only a customer journey. These offerings have a sales journey, too.
Establish a team culture of constant reflection and open thinking. One way to do that is to have moderated good cop/bad cop meetings. The good cop must praise the innovation, the bad cop must argue against it. The moderator protocols and asks follow-up questions to fully understand the arguments. Change roles in one meeting to get a good overview. Additionally, play in these meetings good cop/bad cop in the role of customers, sales, and management. This sharpens your viewpoints.
Continue with customer discovery. Open interviews are still an invaluable source of information to uncover the driving needs. Remember not only to interview potential customers but your sales colleagues, too. This reveals both, the customer- and the sales journey.
STEP 3: EXECUTE AND MAKE THINGS REAL
Execute and turn your visions into results. In this stage, the vision statements become real and the sparked fire needs to stay in your team to master this journey. In this phase, some innovations will be stopped. Otherwise, there is no funnel and no clear focus on key topics. Other projects will pass the funnel. These projects will change their character entirely as they grow from evaluation studies to pre-development projects, to mature product developments.
Impact on innovation culture:
In this step, you create culture by doing what you said you would initially. Accept that some projects will be stopped and lead to better understanding. Nevertheless, this creates friction in the teams and requires encouragement to continue their intrapreneurial journeys.
On the other hand, the projects evolving through the funnel change their character in each funnel phase. This requires strong leadership. The teams need orientation and guidance to understand the changing requirements and to focus on the appropriate topics.
In conclusion, be very transparent with the business decisions that are required in this stage. Or even better, make these decisions transparent as much as possible to your teams and serve as coach and mentor.
When innovation projects shift from pre-development to mature product development, the pressure w.r.t. delivery and business figures increases. Don’t fall into the pressure trap and become the hunted one who throws harsh expectations at your team. This destroys the team culture entirely. Instead, continue and even strengthen your empathic leadership. You have reached a major milestone. You have left the training camp and you are now on a joint mission with your team.
Have a clear strategy for the team members from the stopped innovation projects. E.g., you can apply the rotation principle and shift these team members to those innovation projects, who have passed the funnel, and demand for a bigger team.
Goals and incentives create behavior. For this reason, good incentives value intrapreneurial- or personal development training. Incentivize your innovation leaders for mentoring and coaching. This will not turn wolves into giraffes (see the Rosenberg Model), but it reveals who walks the talk.
STEP 4: ENRICH AND ADD VALUE
Now, the hard work pays off and tangible results are created. It is time to celebrate and to retrospect what was learned in the steps before. This is the foundation for the sustainable improvement of your innovation capabilities.
Impact on innovation culture:
In this phase, you create a culture by appreciating the efforts and celebrating with your team. Give the limelight to your team and to those who have contributed to the results. When the previous journey was used to train your team and to foster the personal growth of your employees, you now have excellent and loyal intrapreneurs who are more capable and who are ready to go on the next mission for your company. Furthermore, communicate the success stories in an empowering tone. This means the message should be: “This success was realized by colleagues like you. So, you can do it, too.” This increases the famous winner mentality in your company and empowers other employees to join future innovation projects.
Conduct a series of retrospective meetings with the team and all involved stakeholders to collect the learnings. This is a great chance to collect valuable feedback since the success allows to openly admit previous fears, road-blockers, and other obstacles.
Establish dedicated town hall meetings for your intrapreneurs and let them tell their learnings. Avoid hero formats. Instead, design these slots as storytelling formats that turn anonymous intrapreneurship into real colleagues.
Closing the Flywheel
After step 4, you return to the beginning. Then, the next cycle of the flywheel starts with envisioning your updated future.
This article is a summary of our learnings from past projects. It is our reminder to use the four detected steps as clarifying reflection in future endeavors. However, keep in mind that all existing innovation methods provide only coarse guidelines and not exact recipes for success. This article is no exception to this.
Enjoy your endeavors in the unknown. Build great teams for great missions. That’s innovation.