Devising a Communications Plan for Collaborative Innovation

Members of a community engaged in the practice of collaborative innovation gain tremendous insights as they pursue that practice through the phases of an enquiry-led campaign. What ideas and insights do we contribute to the question at hand? What have we learned about the practice itself? One commitment that campaign teams make to the community is to create forums and provide the resources to share these insights. In this article Doug Collins suggests an approach by which the campaign team can build a basic communications plan to meet their commitment for sharing relevant information at each phase.

Don’t Change that Channel

I worked in the media industry earlier in my career. The business fascinated me. It enjoyed a rich overabundance of characters and disruptive forces, leavened by a revolving door of thoroughly disruptive characters, who reveled in continually resetting the rules of the game.

One particular fact—or driver—about the business intrigued me. The major broadcast television networks in the U.S. reserve the bulk of their “air” time to promote their own shows (e.g., “Coming up next: Gluten-Free Cooking with Earl Tidmore”). They defer ad revenue to build audiences for their shows. The fact that ubiquitous media brands make this sacrifice signified to me the need for promotion.

I reflect on this fact as I work with people pursuing the practice of collaborative innovation. They often do not come from the world of marketing. As a result, while they accept that promotion plays a role in introducing people to the activity, the questions of how and when and on what basis remain a mystery to start. Likewise, inviting someone with strong marketing and communications skills to join the campaign team can seem like a novel idea in its own right. (I recommend doing so.)

In this article, I share my perspectives on the elements that comprise a basic communications plan for building awareness amongst the people one typically wants to engage during a collaborative innovation campaign. The context is the internal form of enquiry led innovation.

Tooting One’s Horn

The people who promote collaborative innovation within their organization sometimes hesitate to go too far down the path of promoting the activity, choosing instead to issue the occasional status report. Everyone fears becoming the resident spammer. Yet, as our friends in the land of American broadcast learned, it’s wise to assume that people will not instinctively know that the opportunity to participate in the practice is open to them or, if they do have this awareness, on what basis can they engage.

And, if the major networks now compete with thousands of cable and internet channels, you compete for the attention of your community members with a proliferating number of internal initiatives. Many of us walk amongst the weedy walled gardens of proliferating SharePoint portals, for example, which grow like the IT equivalent of kudzu.

Assume that, if you have not spoken in person to a community member about the practice, then they remain unaware. Ultimately, the less people who engage in the critical question facing the organization, the less likely the practice will convene a diverse group that can together build compellingly novel ideas.

Crowd sourcing demands a crowd.

To this end, developing a basic plan requires two insights: insight on your audience and insights on when to engage them. Figure 1 summarizes the following discussion on this front. The responses to the questions shown in the figure would comprise the content of the communications.

Your communications plan—and the engagement it engenders with community members—will deepen with each campaign.

Figure 1: the critical questions that drive communications by campaign phase

Click to enlarge

The Who

The audience one targets in a campaign consists of the following people:

  • The executive sponsor: the person who convenes the community and commits to engaging in developing and sponsoring the ideas that resonate.
  • The campaign team members: the people who commit to engaging with the community and working with the executive sponsor to realize the potential of the members’ ideas.
  • The contributors: the people within the community who share their insights.
  • The community members: the people who the executive sponsor convenes to share their perspective on the critical question.

The campaign itself typically ebbs and flows through the following phases over weeks to months.

  • The enquiry: the question is posed to the community; the people are invited to share their insights on it.
  • The exploration: the community as a whole reflects and builds one another’s ideas, some of which resonate more than others.
  • The resolution: the community, the campaign team, and the sponsor come to an understanding about which ideas to pursue beyond the bounds of the fuzzy front end of innovation.

A Day in the Life of a Campaign

With the above definitions in mind, let’s look at the essential elements that comprise the communications plan.

The Enquiry

During the enquiry phase, the primary communication is from the sponsor to the community at large. The community members seek perspective on the nature of the enquiry (i.e., What question do we explore?), the nature of the engagement (i.e., What opportunities do we have to pursue the question?), along with guidance on timing and logistics (e.g., When can we participate and do we convene at certain times?).

Often, the sponsor communicates this insight to signal both their approval and commitment to pursue the enquiry within the community. The sponsor signals that, yes, community members can embrace the practice of collaborative innovation as their day job.

The Exploration

This phase of the campaign offers incredible opportunities for the members to share their perspective on both the activity itself and the insights they have contributed, relative to the question at hand. Campaign teams will at times focus their energy on communicating logistical or statistical information (e.g., “12 ideas were contributed this week: keep up the good work”). Doing so represents an opportunity lost. Instead, the campaign team should do some exploration by engaging with and interviewing the members who have contributed. What did they find compelling about the enquiry? What reservations did they have about contributing? What commitment do they make to pursue their idea further?

In this sense, your communications plan offers a powerful opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the thinking that motivates people to contribute. Share that perspective with your community, first and foremost. This form of engagement also serves as an intrinsic reward for contributors.

The Resolution

During the resolution phase the communication turns to the members of the community whose ideas have resonated. Specifically, the campaign team engages in dialogue with the contributors to explore the possibilities of pursuing the idea either to the next, concept phase or, at times, to implementation in the near term. Here, the critical task for the campaign team is to continue the dialogue with their individual contributors while keeping the community at large up to date on the resolution process.

What next steps, under the guidance of the sponsor, will the contributors take? Have some contributors decided to pursue their ideas, regardless? If so, do they seek further input or help from the community?

Keep in mind for your communications and for your campaign overall that one sure sign that the organization is embracing the practice of collaborative innovation is when members decide to pursue their ideas, regardless of whether they secured formal sponsorship. Highlight these occurrences, as they represent authentic forms of innovation and personal expressions of leadership.

Final Food for Thought

Your communications plan should mirror the cycle of the enquiry led form of collaborative innovation. In the early days—the enquiry—focus on awareness in order to engage fully as diverse a community as possible. Build the crowd.

During the exploration phase focus your communications on exploring the insights and ideas those community members contribute. Frame your own set of questions to them on how they, in turn, approached the critical question, or enquiry, facing the organization. Share the sponsor’s perspective on which ideas resonate, as well. The practice of collaborative innovation invites all parties to engage.

In the past, people whose organizations have pursued wholesale change initiatives have found themselves on the receiving end of an enormous amount of top-down communications. Experience showed that the initiatives—and the associated approach to communications—were largely failures. The practice of collaborative innovation turns the tables on this timeworn approach. Here the campaign team’s communications serve as a forum for the members to share their perspectives.

Lastly, in the resolution phase, help the contributors whose ideas resonate, along with the community at large, make meaning of next steps and application areas.

Develop a communications plan that allows the campaign team to share enquiries that relate to each phase of the campaign. Reject the easy route of sharing the occasional logistical tidbit, only. The commitment you make to the community requires more.

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities. Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.
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