Starting an Innovation Program? A Strategic Approach to Create Success

Many innovation leaders tend to be tactically driven, but their corporate leadership is looking for more strategic planning and analysis. This tension often contributes to high turnover in innovation management roles, based on a misalignment around leadership’s expectations. In this article Anthony Ferrier suggests perspectives and actions that should be considered part of your innovation strategy plan.

In the past couple of weeks I have been asked by some significant organizations (one an Asian-based conglomerate and the other a U.S. Federal Agency) how they should start an innovation effort. Though on the surface different, they share similarities in terms of their large, complex structures, a need to create new ideas and a desire to engage their employees.

Too often I come across organizations that think their first step should be to launch a crowdsourced challenge or campaign. While this can make sense in the context of “testing the waters” and quickly generating some visible activity, more value can be driven by a well-developed strategic plan.

In my experience, many innovation leaders tend to be tactically driven, but their corporate leadership is looking for more strategic planning and analysis. This tension often contributes to high turnover in innovation management roles, based on a misalignment around leadership’s expectations.

What perspectives and actions should be considered as part of an innovation strategy plan?

  • Defining success: What is going to be considered great? On the surface it is a simple question, but by asking this of yourself and your stakeholders, you are generating thoughts and concrete goals around an often nebulous topic. In addition, you are demonstrating that you are driving towards a goal that your stakeholders should have a sense of ownership around. If they agree to the goals, there is more pressure on them to support your drive towards them. Agree the goal and work to exceed it at every point.
  • Leadership support: Considering who would be a great sponsor of your effort and the approaches to generating broader leadership support are essential to driving success. Effective leadership support directs resources towards new idea development, gives employees the permission to innovate and provides a communication platform. Keep in mind, you may not get your desired sponsor initially, but put the goal out there and work towards finding the right person over time. Beyond the single sponsor, it is often worth considering how to engage a broader group of leaders (possibly from specific business units) to guide efforts going forward. These committees or councils can be stand-alone efforts, or align with existing groups that are already in place.
  • Ecosystem mapping and integrating: Within large organizations it is rare that a single group or individual controls all innovative activity. As part of this planning process it is important to understand the various innovation activities and actions within the organization (read more on this here). More broadly, beyond that they should build processes and approaches to support continued communication and leverage, with a goal of partnership or integration of efforts.
  • Scale of ideas: Understand the size and scope of ideas that you are looking to generate and assess how you will be able to develop them. By first considering the back-end implementation of ideas, you will make more informed decisions about front-end activities. In addition, this perspective needs to include not just what individual ideas will look like, but what makes up an actively managed idea pipeline.

By first considering the back-end implementation of ideas, you will make more informed decisions about front-end activities

  • Scope of input: Decide which stakeholder groups should have input to innovative activities. Do you want to focus efforts on a small sub-segment of employees, or reach out to a broader range? Is a specific business unit or region important to your success, or not? Do you want to focus on internal resources, or seek input / support by partners externally? Deciding on appropriate stakeholders will help define the type of activities undertaken.
  • Activity planning: There is an infinite variety of activities that organizations can use to generate new ideas, and hopefully get them executed effectively. Including an outline of the various activities that an innovation program may look to launch is essential. It may also help to include an honest assessment of costs, expected impact, stakeholder involvement and plans to improve and scale over time.
  • Resourcing management: Most innovation efforts that I work with, whether in a large or small organizations, have limited resources to support their efforts. Including directions and thoughts around the sourcing and allocation of resources will help frame your planning. It is also worth considering unconventional approaches to securing resources, including supporting employee networks and broader crowdsourcing efforts.
  • Multi-year perspective: With these plans it is important to set out a multi-year approach to innovation development. Generally activities start smaller and build over time, assuming agreed performance targets are being achieved. Beyond year-1 the planning can be kept vague, but this kind of approach emphasizes that this is not a passing initiative or corporate fad.
  • Goals and metrics: I have talked about this in the past, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of focusing on the development of specific metrics for any innovative activity.

This is clearly a lot of information, and the resulting document that outlines your plan could be as long as you want it to be. In a previous life as a corporate strategist I found that every time I put together a word document, it was essentially for my own reference (no one would ever read it, despite my best nagging efforts). I do have a great innovation program business plan template in PPT, so feel free to reach out to me directly if you want me to send you a copy (Anthony@culturevate.com).

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author


Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led the BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

Photo: Chess pieces from Shutterstock.com

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