A Simple Template for Choosing an Innovation Challenge

People who practice collaborative innovation envision a compelling future. They transform their communities, their organizations, and themselves by helping people realize their potential for leadership as they form and evolve ideas. Reality check: effective visionaries use pragmatic tactics to move from point A to B. In this article, innovation architect Doug Collins shares a simple template that practitioners can use to help sponsors of innovation challenges choose where to begin their journey.

People who travel a lot tell me that, with each trip, they unburden themselves of clothing they do not wear and toiletries they do not apply while on the road. Checked in luggage reduces to carried on baggage. Carried on baggage reduces to a portfolio case. Liberation ensues: to travel lightly is to travel well, my friend.

Let us consign the steamer trunk to the dorm room and attic. Let us don wash-n-wear Lycra that we rinse in the hotel sink each evening.

I experienced a similar epiphany and liberating unburdening in my journey with people. One sketch, co-developed over a nice cup of hot coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, trumps in most cases a meticulously authored presentation of twenty color slides. The former approach spares me from boring the object of my engagement: an added benefit in our diminished world of short attention spans.

Recently, I devised a minimalist approach for engaging people who may want to sponsor an innovation challenge. How might I help them decide where to start? I share my flow below.

Where to Start?

Ambiguity leads to indecision. Indecision leads to paralysis. Practitioners can help people who may have an interest in sponsoring a challenge navigate the ambiguity of where to start by engaging them with the following view (figure 1).

Figure 1: a work sheet for sponsor engagement

Click to enlarge

The View Explained

Let’s set the stage. Organizations—and the people who run them—have a larger intent in mind, relative to growing (growth) and reducing waste (efficiency). For a given time period (e.g., fiscal year 2013), they seek that growth or efficiency from one or more lines of business (LoB). Bills become laws through various initiatives (e.g., a lean initiative, a new market initiative, etc.). Figure 2 provides an example.

Figure 2: growth through regional expansion

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Hello, Hello…

Now, imagine sitting down with the individual responsible for one or more of the organization’s growth and efficiency initiatives. Perhaps you have pre-populated the view with initiatives that you know the organization plans to pursue in the near term. Perhaps your counterpart and you create this view together in real time. The former approach might indicate that you have done your homework. The latter approach might lead to deeper engagement. Use your discretion.

Next, you engage your counterpart in a simple exercise in prioritization. For each initiative you ask…

  • Is there a critical business question associated with the activity?

In reality, there is always a critical business question associated with a major activity. For example, imagine that the organization launched a major initiative three months ago. A critical question in the form of a post mortem might be, “How might we increase the likelihood of success [the next time that we enter a new market]?” Here, the question speaks more to your sponsor’s discretion: Is there a critical business question worth pursuing at this time, relative to all the other initiatives that the organization is pursuing at present?

  • Is there an engaged sponsor?

Some people embrace powerful questions; powerful questions can threaten others. Firstly, an engaged sponsor is someone who falls into the former camp. Secondly, an engaged sponsor sees the value of pursuing the question in support of this particular initiative—timing and discretion matter.

  • Is there a diverse community?

Crowdsourcing requires crowds. Does the question resonate with enough people who bring enough diverse perspective to make the challenge worthwhile? The “enter Indonesia” example serves as a good example. The sponsor and you may explore regional diversity—people in country in Southeast Asia and people in various functional roles located in the headquarters office.

Affirmative responses to the above questions receive a check in the box. Totaling the checks, while not a substitute for discretion in decision making, serves as a useful exercise that helps people prioritize (figure 3).

Figure 3: prioritizing initiatives for collaborative innovation

Click to enlarge

You could also use this approach to engage multiple people. You could, for example, invite each person to complete the sheet individually. Then, go around the room and have each person share their preferences. Compare notes: do people have a shared understanding of where they might apply collaborative innovation?

What’s Next?

From here, you can engage in the “What’s next?” conversation. Your executive sponsor—the person sitting in front of you in this scenario—may decide to approach the line of business leader responsible for the initiative to gauge their interest. They may assume the sponsorship role, directly. In either case, you have helped your colleague find their way forward.

Parting Thoughts

Simple ideas have a natural advantage. People can readily grasp them. They can readily see whether they have an effect or not. They have fewer sources of error. Errors that do occur can be readily fixed.

I encourage you, by extension, to embrace the advantages of simplicity in your own practice and in your engagement with others as you help them realize their potential for leadership. One of the best ways to embrace simplicity is by drawing basic, visual depictions of the concepts and landscapes on which you want to engage your fellow community members. This one—the initiative view that maps to challenge opportunities—happens to work for me. Please drop me a line if you have developed others in your own practice of collaborative innovation.

By Doug Collins

About the author:


Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.

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