Little Fires Everywhere: How Leaders Can Ensure Innovation Programs Are Creating Value
Leaders in established organizations have now moved beyond debating whether innovation is necessary. The conversation has now shifted to finding the right ways to innovate. As a result of this, companies are launching a lot of innovation programs. I am consistently finding that whatever innovation program I have been brought in to advise is not the only program happening inside the company. It seems that companies are now spawning loads of random innovation programs — all claiming to do the same things and all with different or even competing objectives.
This can be a little unsettling. In some large companies I have worked with, innovators are constantly running into each other. They are asking for the same resources, building similar products and even talking to the same customers. There is a lot of internal competition and duplication of effort, which is a great waste of time, resources and talent.
This burst of innovative activity has become a real problem since innovation theater made innovation a cool thing to do within companies. Now everyone wants to be recognised as an innovative corporate rockstar. So they will start with an innovation lab, then someone else suggests an idea competition, then another team launches a digital hub and before you know it, you have got little fires everywhere.
I encourage innovators to avoid joining in on this waste of time. Don’t be one of those intrapreneurs who just wants to get started and is willing to do anything to get their piece of the pie. Always be thinking about how you can create value for your company using innovation. There are two main ways you can do this with an innovation program you design:
- Create Economic Value: These innovation programs are designed to work on launching new products, services and business models that generate net new revenue for the company. They avoid innovation theater and are deliberately focused on testing business ideas to find value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that are profitable and scalable. Different programs can focus on improving the core business, while others explore new opportunities for growth.
- Transform Company Culture: These innovation programs are designed to transform the company into an innovation engine that can repeatedly launch new value propositions and business models. Such programs typically work with finance to develop an investment framework for innovation. They also work with other key functions such as brand, legal, compliance, technology, sales, marketing and human resources. The goal is to remove organizational blockers of innovation and enhance the enablers.
As you can see, these two types of programs create value for the organization. The first type generates economic returns, while the second type improves the company culture for the better. The disciplined innovation leaders avoid innovation theater such as idea competitions that have no follow-on funding or hosting cultural events that result in no change in the organizational structures and processes.
It is important for leaders to map out exactly what is going on within innovation within the company. Who is doing what and where? I often discover innovation activities sitting at different layers within the company from top to bottom. Leaders within various divisions and departments will often kick off their own programs without paying much attention to what else is happening in the company. So, I spend time talking to the people running these innovation programs to learn:
- Why the programs were set up and what they are trying to achieve.
- Are these programmes focused on creating new growth, transforming the company or both?
- How much impact are they actually having on either creating economic value or transforming the company?
- What challenges are they facing? What are the main enablers and blockers to innovation with the company?
Gathering this information is really helpful in understanding the lay of the land. It allows leaders to make more informed decisions about which innovation programs to stop, which innovation programs to improve and which innovation programs to invest more resources in scaling. It can also make clear the neglected parts of their innovation ecosystem that need new programs to be designed and launched.
Whatever the case, corporate leaders must ensure that every innovation program within their company is delivering value in a manner that is aligned with their overall strategic goals. Anything else is innovation theater and should be stopped.