The Role of Top-Down Management in Enterprise Innovation

Running a successful enterprise innovation management program can be a challenging mission. Multiple factors have to be considered,each of which affect potential outcomes. One key aspect is the level of support an innovation program receives from an organization’s management. Connecting the needs of top-down management with the strategy and architecture of an innovation program will always lead to greater levels of success.

A core component of modern innovation ecosystems is an online platform which enables employees and external audiences to communicate, collaborate and jointly solve organizational challenges. Without platforms that enable individuals to share, capture and connect knowledge, the targets of an organization’s management are difficult to achieve. Software-based innovation programs can bridge the gap between innovators who have the ideas, and colleagues who have the knowledge and resources to develop richer concepts from them. Managers that act as sponsors can thus build credibility when innovation work is extended to include the frequent sharing and co-creation of knowledge from remote employees.

Why Sponsorship?

In today’s globalized economies the need for organizations to innovate is clearly visible. Organizations have to continuously adapt to rapidly changing market environments, customer demands and competitor landscapes which lead to on-going transformation processes. All organizations have a desire to close their growth gap, which cannot be achieved by offering existing products and services to existing markets. At their heart successful innovation programs – utilized as a service to reach this target – are strategically aligned to company goals. In the context of modern innovation eco-systems, strategic alignment is a key success factor.

Strategic alignment of modern collaborative enterprise innovation programs means focusing on the needs of managers to fulfill their targets and to solve their business challenges. To accomplish this managers are requesting employees and external audiences to collaborate and to share knowledge in support of those business challenges. To engage and motivate audiences managers have to understand what their audiences core needs are, not just those aligned to the day job, but also on a cultural, social and economic level. The desire to have influence on decision making processes, to connect and help others, to feel a greater level of satisfaction and being taken seriously are the most important and influential parameters.

Failure

The failure of innovation programs is often directly related to the level of management-support in place. Figure 1 visualizes the life-cycle of two different innovation programs we are confronted with from time to time. Both graphs represent failed initiatives, and in both cases the appropriate sponsorship was missing,leading to a significant impact on the results. In the first case the innovation program was lacking any management-support(dark blue line). The innovation team established the program without a core link to the needs of the organization, therefore there were no supportive communication and marketing activities to help foster belief in the process. The program did not receive the necessary attention among audiences, and employees only participated occasionally, with lower quality content being submitted as a direct result.

Figure 1: Two failed innovation programs

It became clear to the innovation management team that the selected campaign-sponsors didn’t have the resources and the capabilities to take action on selected ideas and launch implementation projects.

In the second case (light blue line) management–support played an important part in the setup of the innovation program. Participation grew initially and as expected. After the program was rolled out and a couple of additional campaigns started, desired solutions could be identified. So why did people not participate in the long run? It became clear to the innovation management team that the selected campaign-sponsors didn’t have the resources and the capabilities to take action on selected ideas and launch implementation projects, and therefore were unable to communicate progress. Few results and little in the way of success stories lead invitees to believe that the process was not working, and that submitted content, and in the end the audience itself, was not treated seriously enough. People became skeptical and ignored the program which led to declining participation and ultimately to a failed initiative.

From Sponsorship to Business Value

So what is required to turn enterprise innovation programs into long-term, sustainable successes? We have identified four key areas where sponsorship will support innovation managers and organizations to run successful programs. Each is connected to the others and affects an innovation program on different levels and in different phases.

1. Strategic Sponsorship

Strategic sponsorship offers credibility to an innovation program. It highlights that the organization as a whole is supporting the complete initiative. It ensures innovation managers can align their innovation programs to the goals of their organization, by involving the strategic sponsor in the alignment process leading to better correlation. Furthermore, having a sponsor on a program level will foster the belief among target audiences that the executive management has identified innovation as a core competency and that it plays a fundamental role in solving organizational challenges. It will instill the understanding that it is now acceptable to spend time on the program, that this is part of their day job. When rolling out a new innovation program strategic sponsorship should be considered. Having the CxO sponsorship is crucial to establishing and maintaining program credibility and successful outcomes.

2. Tactical Sponsorship

Similar to strategic sponsorship, tactical sponsorship has a positive effect on selected audiences. It will foster the belief in day-to-day innovation initiatives such as innovation campaigns, and into the need for identifying solutions to specific business challenges. The (tactical) sponsor posing a challenge is directly representing the business need, and is visibly asking for support to fulfill it. Having sponsorship on a campaign level ensures that an innovation program is focused on solving real business challenges, and although challenges outside of that alignment are also taken into consideration, they’re not primarily represented within the innovation program.

Involving middle management to outline their business challenges and to sponsor aligned campaigns is crucial. Usually solutions to their problems can be implemented quickly and with very limited budgets and resources. It will enable innovation managers to achieve quick results that can be communicated soon after campaigns have closed, which will get the community interested in the program. When launching a new innovation program,middle management sponsorship should be taken into consideration. Moreover, it will help to get the buy-in from middle management early on, helping to ensure they don’t act as “blockers” later by defending their own interests which can lead to sabotage of the overall initiative.

3. Engagement

Usually employees may be cautious before they join in, and take numerous factors into account. Participation is dominantly driven by the belief in the sponsor of a program or campaign. If I don’t know or don’t trust a sponsor I will not participate. It is a key factor to steer participation that a sponsor lives up to the image that audiences expect. They need a connection to that individual, which will in return lead to a better affiliation to the campaigns they are sponsoring. A sponsor will have a positive impact if he is known for “getting things done” and implementing new ideas, whereas an image that is less forward thinking is likely to harm participation.

The perception of a sponsor can change over time, especially when skeptical sponsors will understand that an innovation program is there to support them, and after achieving results in initial campaigns in which they are involved in. In the early phases of an innovation program finding the right sponsors with the appropriate profiles is essential. It will raise participation quickly.

If I don’t know or don’t trust a sponsor I will not participate.

Furthermore, participation can be harmed if sponsors don’t take action on identified ideas and concepts, or if they don’t treat them seriously enough. Being able to implement ideas requires that a sponsor not only asks for ideas but that they are within their scope of action. This will lead audiences to believe in the sponsor’s sincerity and capabilities. Asking for solutions outside of their scope of influence will lead to ideas that cannot be implemented, which will in return demotivate target audiences dramatically.

Active participation by a sponsor within a campaign is a powerful mechanism to drive participation. Campaign sponsors who play an active role by commenting on ideas or replying to existing comments will encourage audiences to be involved in discussions. This will transform basic ideas into richer concepts. Although this aspect will be less important the more an innovation program matures, the platform process will continuously be accessed by new audience-members upon which it is yet to have a positive effect.

4. Business Value

A sponsor should be able to state how much budget is available to implement an idea. It ensures that identified concepts are in the correct implementation range they seek. A target audience should be aware of the fact that their submitted ideas should, for example, not exceed the budget of $100,000.Otherwise audiences will offer ideas at higher levels of cost beyond the sponsors’ budget. If a sponsor needs to define a budget they should check with the budget holder what could be possible in advance to launching a campaign. In addition to the budget, sponsors should state the high-level criteria ideas must meet to be recognized as possible solutions, like the implementation time-frame or the key benefit that they would provide.

Innovation programs and campaigns have diverse groups of stakeholders. They may influence what gets implemented, have a veto, or want to support successful concepts. Sponsors should consider these roles in advance and use them appropriately. Stakeholders that can influence implementation can take an active role in the campaign and possibly in the review team. The ones with veto power can help to design campaign descriptions and criteria for good ideas. Stakeholders that support successful concepts can encourage participants and engage their teams. Stakeholders are often underestimated, but they can make or break a campaign or a program. Audiences will be aware of them, which is why they can and should be used to the advantage of a sponsor.

Plan your innovation program

Innovation managers should look for sponsors in senior roles who may be interested in the new approach in innovation which is meeting their needs. They can ask them to sponsor a campaign and illustrate how the approach can help them directly to achieve their business targets. Sponsors should consider where a larger audience or diversity of opinion would help to solve their business problems and invite them to support them.

Once the value of the process is shown the innovation management team can get more adventurous

An innovation program should launch with tactical campaigns first. Everyone can see early results, and management will be convinced more quickly of the value of the approach. Once the value of the process is shown, the innovation management team can get more adventurous. Campaigns built around strategic challenges that will affect wider parts of an organization can then be tackled and launched after confidence in the process has been achieved.

Summary and Recommendations

As our analysis has shown (you can watch an aligned webinar here), the success of an innovation program depends dramatically on the appropriate involvement of an organization’s management.Program sponsorship ensures everyone knows this is part of their day job. Asking management for help and encouraging them to sponsor campaigns will build belief and confidence into the program. Innovation managers can grow interest by encouraging all leaders to participate – not everyone will support a sponsor on the first day, but early albeit tactical successes can be used to encourage others. Business value targets can be achieved by encouraging sponsors to act on good ideas. They will only ask for things they want, and innovation managers should ensure that they act when they see helpful contributions. Direct feedback will build belief in a sustainable process. Top performers should be recognized and everyone should be made aware what is happening with the best ideas.

By Khattab Al-Ali

About the Author

Khattab Al-Ali is a Strategic Consultant at Hype Innovation. He is a subject matter expert, and has been working with organizations in the Middle East and Europe as a project manager for more than 3 years. He is now coaching and training organizations to run and manage successful innovation management programs focusing on innovation, collaboration and cost reduction. Recent clients include Saudi Aramco, Gasco, ThyssenKrupp, Bosch and Adidas.


Photo: sponsors road sign illustration design over a white background from shutterstock.com

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