When we engage with a client on an innovation project, typically there is a round of stakeholder interviews. Often, key people in the organization will tell us about the time they've spent discussing what innovation is and what needs to change to improve their company's innovation efforts.
Unfortunately, all that talking is not accompanied by much doing. That discussion of innovation strategy can slow actual innovation down to a crawl and even prevent good ideas from getting to market.
It isn't their fault. Innovation management is a new and evolving skill set for business. It is being shaped by company culture, academic investigation and professional services offerings. So it isn't surprising that the typical business leader feels he or she is "missing" something and is hesitant to act.
[ Is your company afraid to stick its neck out? Read Innovation Isn't Working At 4 Out Of 5 Companies. ]
So here are two concrete steps you can take as a business leader that will let employees take action on innovative ideas. These steps will pay off regardless of how mature your company's overall innovation management is.
1. Create safe places for people to practice with innovation.
In a previous article, I wrote about "Why Innovation Fails," the tension between reliability (protecting and perfecting what has worked) and eventuality (embracing the future). Anyone being asked to innovate needs a safe place to practice integrating the two.
Some companies choose to physically construct an innovation room while others hold workshops to educate and immerse employees in the language and tools of customer empathy and creative problem solving. Whatever the approach, these environments should not be connected tightly to project-related outcomes.
For example, one of our clients recently won the 2013 CXPA award from the Customer Experience Professionals Association for a Customer Experience Room that was developed to provide all employees with a concrete interaction with their customer segments. The result has been an overall increase in customer satisfaction as measured by Forrester Customer Experience Index and J.D. Power ratings.
2. Develop an accessible method for prototyping.
This step helps people master innovation at the project level. The people running day-to-day operations aren't used to quickly developing a good-enough prototype that shows what a new innovation feels like. However, that kind of prototype is an important part of building the support to keep an innovative idea on track. There are multiple methods for creating the lowest cost prototype that still has enough detail to give others a feeling for how the end product or service will create a valuable consumer experience. This doesn't have to be a physical prototype; it can be anything from a comic strip to a video to a mock interface. The only criteria should be that it effectively proves out a hypothesis about the idea -- not necessarily that it brings the entire idea to life.
For example, a video might show how a customer would use a mobile application to solve a service issue. You don't need a prototype that delivers that information at this stage, only a way to show colleagues why you think that feature will drive sales or customer satisfaction. Screens designed for use in the video can also be shown to customers for feedback on how useful they would find it.
A prototype that explains the customer need, rather than the functionality, is particularly valuable when a company wants to encode some level of internal expertise into an online calculator or self-serve decision tool for its customers.
For example, a client of ours felt customers would like to see how much a common health problem would cost under different insurance plan choices. Early in the development plan the team created a couple of prototypes that ultimately showed that the company was not ready to encode the level of complexity necessary to produce a customer-specific cost. The prototype showed that customers wouldn't find it useful to see what it might cost; they felt it should show what it will cost. So the company made sure not to push ahead with the project unless it was committed to the resource support to provide that more difficult feature.
So if you want to get your company on the road to mastering innovation management, create safe places to try customer-centric design practices outside of project work; and during a project, develop prototype options that can help you judge effectiveness with the least sunk cost.
In general, we have found that the worst enemy to innovation is spending too much time figuring out what it is rather than just getting on with it.