25 Steps to Jump-Start your Innovation Journey

We’ve covered some essential ground to help you prepare your innovation journey, and now it’s time to put these concepts into action. The innovation formula addresses the very specific tasks that have to be accomplished for innovation to emerge from your organization not only as a matter of luck or at random, but through a concentrated effort that results in sustained innovation performance. Here you will find the Taking Action steps along with 25 additional suggestions that we hope will help you to think and plan creatively and productively about how to make innovation a reality in your organization.

Is it realistic to suggest that there’s actually a formula for innovation? If you have been reading the previous chapters, you certainly have an opinion about that question.

  • Change and complexity, the external world that seems to be different nearly every day.
  • Risk and the need to come up with great ideas, and to balance potential rewards with the risks that come with striving to attain them.
  • Speed, the imperative to go fast because the external world isn’t waiting around for you or your organization, and your competitors would be happy to seize your market share and make it their own.
  • Engagement, because it takes the observations, expertise, and insights of many people working effectively together to come up with great ideas, and then transform them into working solutions to problems that your customers really do want to solve.
  • Leadership, because no innovations happen without courage, commitment, support, and often resources, and these are elements that you, as leader, must provide in highly visible and emphatic ways.
  • And then tools, which can make the path much easier and faster even if they’re not fancy.

So the formula says that innovation success is a function of risk, times speed, times engagement, times leadership, plus tools. Has anything critical been omitted? If you think we have left something we’d love to hear your feedback, as our ongoing dialog with innovators around the world has been an essential part of our practice and our learning for more than 20 years, and many of the most important lessons have come this way.

For the moment, though, let’s assume that the model is valid, and continue to explore how it could or should be implemented. Making this happen is not just all about you, of course. As you come to understand the scope of work that you’ll need to engage in to get innovation happening in the most effective way possible, you’ve realized that you may need a team to work with you, an innovation team.

Your Innovation Team

This will be a dynamic group of people from many different backgrounds who have vital roles to play in support of your firm’s innovation objectives. Without knowing the specifics of your situation, your organization, and the unique challenges you’re facing, please consider the following as a suggestion and a general set of jobs or roles that are useful to the successful pursuit of innovation in a small organization, that is, your company.

The roles that we think are most important to your organization’s innovation performance line up with the elements of the formula…

The innovation formula addresses the very specific tasks that have to be accomplished for innovation to emerge from your organization not only as a matter of luck or at random, but through a concentrated effort that results in sustained innovation performance. Hence, the roles that we think are most important to your organization’s innovation performance line up with the elements of the formula: complexity and change, risk management, speed, engagement, leadership, and tools.

Complexity and Change: The Strategy Manager

We began the discussion of your innovation needs, requirements, and opportunities by exploring the driving forces of change that are shaping the world of tomorrow. We talked about technology, science, culture, the population, and climate change, and these broad trends as well as some that may be specific to your industry or your organization present a continually changing panorama that you need to be paying close attention to, for there’s no telling when an external change will lead to a specific requirement or challenge for you.

Thus, the innovation team needs someone to track the external trends, major and minor, that are pertinent to and important to your organization’s strategy, to its competitive position, and to its innovation possibilities. What is the news about your competitors, or technology, consumers, media, culture, and your suppliers that could influence the present or the future? What are the emerging trends? Who are the thought leaders?

If your firm is very small then this manager is likely to be you, the owner/entrepreneur, or if it’s larger then perhaps someone else can play that role. It’s not a full time activity, but more a process of diligently gathering data points and once in a while looking to see what patterns are evident.

Perhaps you keep a bulletin board posted with news, a collection that everyone in the company can contribute to, as it’s very helpful when many people are involved in tracking change and helping to identify the trends and patterns. Some will turn out to be important, others not, but the point is to be engaged in the ongoing effort to pay attention to what’s going on, and figure out what the implications could be.

Risk Management: The Portfolio Manager

The next major topic in the book was risk management, and we described the importance of an innovation portfolio as the right tool to help you find the right balance between risk and reward. Since you’re likely to have an innovation portfolio it will need to be managed, and thus it is a specific responsibility to track the innovation portfolio and monitor the progress of each of the projects that’s being worked on. If your firm only has one or two innovation projects then this role won’t exist, but if there are five or ten of them then it can be quite helpful to have someone monitoring the progress and making an update every week or two. This doesn’t have to be particularly time consuming to be helpful – even an hour now and then can make a difference.

Speed, Engagement, and Tools: The Project Manager

Next we talked about speed, and the critical importance of getting innovation projects done quickly. This generally means that project management is needed, especially if you’re doing large projects. Someone, perhaps yourself and perhaps someone else, has to oversee the specifics on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, and keep the work moving along on time.

And since speed is one of your major performance objectives, project management is largely about keeping people focused, defining slightly unreasonable deadlines, and then helping innovation project teams to meet those deadlines.

Another facet of project management relates to the next theme we explored, engagement. It is often project managers who create the programs, projects, and initiatives that nurture and inspire broader levels of engagement, not only by the innovation teams themselves, but across the entire organization.

The third role for project management in the context of the innovation formula is the engagement in defining and implementing the right tools. As we discussed, tools that facilitate high performance collaborative work, tools that help people engage effectively with the broader network or ecosystem, tools such as innovation or ideas rooms can all make a significant enhancement to your efforts, and it is often the project managers, who are paying close attention to the overall performance and always looking for opportunities to improve, who can best identify the right investments in tooling that will yield the desired improvements at the right cost.

Leadership: Peers, Partners, and Advisors

Our next topic was leadership, and you should certainly spend time regularly honing your leadership skills. In addition, many small business leaders find it very helpful to work with the leaders of other firms in peer groups to discuss their issues and challenges, learn how others may have addressed the same ones, and also coach and consult with one another to help each grow their businesses.

Most small businesses operate as part of a local business community and many have local suppliers and local customers who understand the local business culture as well as the competitive environment, and it can be tremendously helpful to engage a few of them from to participate as advisors for the overall innovation effort, or to provide feedback on specific innovation projects and initiatives.

For example, it may be helpful to create an advisory board consisting of a few outsiders who will give guidance and feedback to innovation activities. It’s a good idea to include a mix of people who are familiar with your industry, and also some who work in from different industries and therefore have different experiences and viewpoints on key trends, major issues, and who bring different ways to look at and solve problems.

Advisory board members can be asked to respond to specific requests for information, and they may meet as a group a few times a year to provide a sounding board for new ideas and directions, and also to critique and advise on projects and portfolios.

Getting Started

As you recruit the best people you can find to participate on your innovation team, and work to engage with them as your teammates, colleagues, and fellow travelers on the innovation journey, one of the most important things to remember is that innovation is driven by divergent thinking, which we also know as lateral thinking, and as a leader you must specifically encourage, promote, and indeed insist on the necessity of divergent thinking across all aspects of the work, from the design and management of your innovation efforts, to the conduct of the many ongoing innovation projects.

Divergent thinking brings the possibility of seeing new ideas, of seeing possibilities that others have not seen, and this is a central objective of all of this work. The outsiders and advisory board members will be particularly well-positioned to offer such insights, but you must constantly stress to the insiders you work with, including the members of your team, that divergent thinking is absolutely necessary to short and long term success.

We contrast divergent thinking with its opposite, convergent or analytical thinking. Analytical thinking is the approach that is most typically used throughout the day-to-day affairs of a business, which relies on deduction and generally on linear thought processes. This is sound, logical, and essential for success, but it’s often an impediment to innovation.

The first reason is that convergent thought tends to eliminate possibilities that are outside of the field of view, causing people to choose from the options that they see immediately before them, and not to even consider the possibly better options that are over the horizon.

Second, convergent thought is based on existing knowledge, whereas it is a core principle of innovation that we must seek new knowledge. And as the comment from Norman Doidge makes utterly clear, the mind which is set in its ways is entirely willing to discount or entirely disregard information which does not conform to expectations. Such information is often the golden ore which innovators seek. Divergent thinking is much more likely to expose this hidden ore, while convergent thinking might never consider it as a possibility.

The innovation team must be a learning team, a group of people who use divergent thinking to discover the future, and create it.

To counteract an organization’s necessary obsession with somewhat narrow logic and to support the discovery of useful novelty, innovation teams do best when they encourage divergent thinking. This means that their way of thinking and working will be quite different from how most of the work is done throughout the rest of the organization. The innovation team must be a learning team, a group of people who use divergent thinking to discover the future, and create it.

To arrive at a worthwhile destination you have to know where you’re going, so in this chapter we’ve discussed your skills as an innovator and the roles that make innovation happen. You’re curious to discover new insights, you learn nimbly, you ask great questions, you lead, you manage, you coach, you design, and you’re honest.

Further, you’ll rely on a great, dedicated, and skillful team that’s spinning along in the groove, getting outstanding work done, developing great ideas and turning them into profound value for your customers and for your organization. This is the organization in which innovation is clearly happening!

We’ve covered some essential ground to help you prepare your innovation journey, and now it’s time to put these concepts into action. As you consider the decisions you need to make about the role of innovation in the future of your company, the Taking Action Steps listed at the end of each chapter have been intended to help you frame the themes and issues in a productive way. They’re copied here, along with 25 additional suggestions that we hope will help you to think and plan creatively and productively about how to make innovation a reality in your organization.

Taking Action: Chapters 3 – 10

Chapter 3: Complexity and Change
List the changes you expect, and then prioritize the top 3. Think about how the changes could impact your business in each of these, prioritize the ones that you think will be most impactful, and devise a quick strategic response.

Another task: identify one of the themes that’s vital to the future of your business, and make it your mission to learn more about it.

Chapter 4: Risk, Great Ideas, and Your Business Model
There’s been a lot to think about in this chapter, and we’ve already made a lot of suggestions about what you can or should do to being implementing these ideas.

As noted just above, make a list of possible disruptions pertaining to each of the major driving forces of change. Assess the short, medium, and long term impact, and think about the early warning signs that you might receive to indicate that a possibility is turning into a reality.

The exercise to list changes in the last five years, and your anticipated changes in the next five can also be a powerful way to see more clearly hoe change is occurring, and to prepare for the big changes that are certainly coming.

Chapter 5: Risk and Your Innovation Portfolio
It should be obvious that you need to engage in a detailed exercise to design and build your innovation portfolio. This will perhaps involve a number of other people, including leaders, managers, and thoughtful people from throughout the organization, and from outside as well.

And remember that building and then managing your innovation portfolio is a process at which you’ll improve over time. The first efforts, no matter how unsure, will inevitably lead you in the right direction as your learn how to make the process work for your culture and the specific challenges that your organization faces. Give this time regularly, once each month or two, and allow the learning that will occur to bring its benefits.

Chapter 6: Speed
Once you’ve identified some promising projects, put a team together and set an ambitious goal. Then give them a lot of support and coaching so that they can begin working productively. Encourage speed, which means that you may have to remove obstacles that impede them.

Remain open to feedback and suggestions, and make sure that everyone knows that learning is essential and that fast failures are preferable to slow ones.

Chapter 7: Engagement
In general it’s really easy to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, but difficult to get a clear view of your won. To gain a deeper understanding of the culture of your own organization you’ll therefore need to step outside of it and look back to see what’s really going on, how people are relating to one another, where the tensions and dysfunctions are hidden, and what’s working really well.

Such an assessment can then help you to target the improvements that will result in strong performance across all three of the critical roles.

Chapter 8: Leadership
This is a chapter on leadership, so it’s fairly obvious that you need to make a careful and honest assessment of your own leadership style. What’s working? What’s not working?

Then move on to the other items for your more complete self- assessment. Set aside some focused, quiet time to think about your own strengths and weaknesses, and then decide on a couple that you feel are critical to the future success of your organization, and put together a study plan to learn how your desire for personal change can become a reality.

It may be very helpful to discuss these issues with your peers, other business leaders who have their own companies to run, and who are facing the same or similar challenges. Peer coaching like this can be very useful.

Chapter 9: Tools
These four innovation tools can work together nicely to support creative and innovative people through the many phases and iterations of their work in the innovation process. When these methods are combined effectively they can make a tremendous difference by helping individuals and teams achieve much better and much faster results.

So naturally you need to ask yourself if your organization should invest in these tools.

If you have offices, you already have. Are they as good as they can be?

And if you have software tools, you also have. So given the productivity gains that can be achieved, it may be a very fruitful investment.

Innovation managers are often the ones who shepherd these tools, methods, and environments into reality, and thereby support the quest for high performance for their own organizations.

Chapter 10: Your Innovation Master Plan
You may choose to write up your findings in a plan, and it will certainly also be the subject of a briefing with your executive team to help them understand the organization’s current capabilities, prescriptions, and the role that each member of the executive team needs to play in developing and promoting the dramatically enhanced innovation capability that you envision, the transformation of your organization into a genuine innovator.

As you prepare the innovation master plan you should expect to identify ten to twenty major improvement areas to focus on, and these may become the primary drivers of your innovation action plan for the first six months to one year. You can also expect that during the course of that work you’ll be interacting with a great many people, and both coaching and encouraging them to participate in the innovation process, as well as for many insisting that they follow the rigorous innovation structure.

As you will certainly have noticed, a lot of this overlaps with your needs as a small business leader, but the scale of the ideation effort that a large firm has to engage in, and the scale of the infrastructure to support the financial, managerial, and coordination of all that is probably far more than you need.

And in fact, the very idea of a Master Plan may be beyond the scale or scope of your requirements. But at the same time it’s necessary to plan thoughtfully and engage people effectively as you pursue innovations to support your own business’ future growth and development.

And of course the advantage that you’re likely to have over a larger firm is the capacity to act quickly. As the leader of a small company, when you want to move forward you can make a lot of great stuff happen very fast, while bigger firms may spend weeks, or months, or even years debating; that can yield you a significant head start.

25 additional suggestions

  1. Study. Innovation is a vast topic with countless nuances and subtleties to master, and there are many sources of great information. If you’ve read this book, or any other good innovation materials recently, go back and look at the ideas you’ve highlighted. Make your own list of innovation initiatives and get working on them.
  2. Evaluate your company’s innovation results over the last five years and compare them with your top competitors. In what areas have they done better, and in what areas has your firm done better? Which competitor has been the most innovative over the last five years? Initiate a competitor intelligence program to figure out how they’ve done it.
  3. Conduct a detailed audit of your own firm’s innovation methodology. Assemble a diverse team of people and do the audit as a workshop. Solicit their ideas for improvements, and have them prepare three initiatives to address the most important shortcomings.
  4. Think about the four different types of innovation and evaluate the last five innovations your firm produced to see what categories they fall into. What does that tell you about your existing innovation process?
  5. Start asking questions. Talk to five front-line people each day whom you wouldn’t normally encounter, and learn from their point of view what’s working, what’s not working, and where your products or services are falling short.
  6. Assess the rate of change in your industry and determine the rate at which new companies emerge and old companies are displaced. Identify the key factors that caused formerly leading companies to decline, and then assess your own company’s performance on these same variables.
  7. Develop your organization’s idea vault. Put it to use and invite users to make suggestions to improve the database and its interface so that it is optimally useful.
  8. Create an Innovation Advisory Board and invite five outsiders who know your industry to give you their candid feedback about your firm and it’s innovation initiatives.
  9. Assess your current business model by determining which elements of your business are most important to your customer’s experience, and then deciding how well you’re doing in each area and what you need to do to improve.
  10. Assess the role of innovation in your organization’s strategy over the past five years, and then consider what will be needed over the next five. The next time you have a meeting on strategic planning spend half the time discussing innovation.
  11. Identify some key themes that you think are very important to your relationships with your future customers, and engage in detailed dialog to learn more about customer attitudes, values, beliefs, and motivations.
  12. Set up or improve your systems to gather customer feedback.
  13. Focus your next strategy meeting on innovation, and ask each person attending to propose three new ideas that have never been discussed before in such meetings.
  14. Hold a business model innovation workshop and invite people from different parts of the organization to come together for a day to brainstorm new business model ideas in the morning, and then develop 3 or 4 of them into real proposals in the afternoon.
  15. Go to a magazine stand and buy five magazines that you’ve never looked at before that are not ostensibly about your own field. See how many pieces of information you can find that are pertinent to your industry or your company.
  16. Set aside a space at the crossroads of your office as an idea room. Invite everyone to prepare and post ideas, and structure it so that others can give feedback on any idea they find interesting.
  17. Study the ten most important technological trends that will affect your industry over the next five years, and assess your firm’s capability in each area. Prepare a plan to develop competence in any area in which you have shortcomings.
  18. Do an assessment of top management’s innovation leadership in your organization, and identify the top three weaknesses. Come up with a plan to overcome them, and implement it.
  19. Institute innovation awards that recognize both successes and failures. The key criterion for winning a prize is the degree of learning that the effort provided to the organization. Consider presenting awards that are not monetary, but rather symbolic and which carry status within the organization. Hold a luncheon to celebrate ten great ideas that didn’t work, and ten that did.
  20. Establish a linkage with a local university by funding an internship in a social or technical area that are important for your firm’s future. Ask them to prepare and present an analysis of your industry and an evaluation of your firm’s positioning, and to propose three research areas they could work in that would add significant value to your positioning over the next three years.
  21. Conduct an anonymous survey in your firm to assess trust. Do employees trust management? Do they trust each other? What can be done to improve trust?
  22. Study the risk profiles of the last ten innovations your industry developed. Determine the degree of risk associated with each one to find out if you’re taking too much innovation risk, or too little.
  23. Identify a company that you admire that’s outside of your industry. Study that company in detail to learn why it’s so good, and figure out how to emulate its strengths in your own organization. Have each member of your team look at a different company, and compare your findings.
  24. Send teams to meet with 25 of your customers to learn more about how they use your firm’s products and services. Have all the teams meet together afterwards to debrief and prepare an analysis of what they’ve learned, and what they think ought to be done differently going forward.
  25. Do an obstacles audit on your own firm and find out what’s blocking people from innovation. Then remove the obstacles.
  26. That’s probably enough.

Hopefully this book has given you a lot to think about, and perhaps also some clarity about some of the next steps that you’ll take to achieve innovation in your own organization.

Thus, I have two final recommendations:

First, take some quiet time to think.

And lastly, start your innovation journey now.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:


Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.

Main image: starting platform from Shutterstock.com

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