Evaluation and Innovation

The words evaluation and innovation are not often put together in one sentence. Most companies believe that measurement has a negative effect on creativity and innovation —it is seen as a control tool that harms, rather than supports, reflection and learning. While data is seen as a valuable source of discovering new trends and user needs, it is rarely used to measure internal innovation progress and capability. Because we see measurement as stifling innovation and creativity, companies rarely track the information needed to determine creative ability and innovation success. In fact, many organizations end up ignoring the issue all together.

This article is part of the THNK VIEWS series. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners from a rich database of research papers. This article builds on Exploring the Use of Innovation Performance Measurement to Build Innovation Capability in a Medical Device Company by Susanne Nilsson andSofia Ritzén and shows how evaluation might be turned into a tool that stimulates innovation.

The study of Susanne Nilsson and Sofia Ritzén finds that measurement can very well spur a company’s innovation capability. On the basis of their research, they conclude that evaluation methods must:

  • Provide clarity on company targets and goals.
  • Nurture intrinsic employee motivation and create meaning by showing how a particular action fits within the broader scope of the organization.
  • Stimulate not only the generation and implementation of creative ideas, but also motivate and inspire new behaviors.

We wholeheartedly agree: “what gets measured gets done- also in case of innovation”.  Still, if the benefits are so clear, why do many organizations balk against it?  This is because tracking innovation performance has several adverse implications that require enlightened leadership to mitigate properly.

Understand the emotions

When THNK School of Creative Leadership —an innovative educational concept without a good precedent to compare against— was just founded, we sent out daily evaluation surveys to our creative leadership program participants. Every morning, faculty got together to discuss the survey feedback, and adjust and improve our program and teaching methods from there. The same thing still happens today: we send out daily and weekly evaluation surveys to measure satisfaction, and ensure thorough reflection, learning, and progress. At the end of the modules, our entire team gets together to discuss the overall results, as well as each faculty member’s individual performance.

Our learning was to acknowledge that the team members make the performance scores personal in ways that are not always helpful to keep innovating.

We quickly realized that this stopped those with a high performance score from taking any risk in further innovating their delivery.  Meanwhile, those with a low score only felt demotivated and not valued for their effort.  As our product still needed many innovative changes to become distinctive, we had to break out of both of these understandable, yet not-acceptable reactions. So in case of high scores, we put the performance bar significantly above that of the customer feedback and reframed low scores as “to-be-expected given the experimental nature of the effort.” Our learning was to acknowledge that the team members make the performance scores personal in ways that are not always helpful to keep innovating.  Put mechanisms in place for people to support and challenge one another, and it will take the team as a whole to a higher level.

Interpret failure as learning

Creativity and innovation —per definition— require experimentation, risk taking, and failure. “Fail often, try harder” is an often heard mantra. But how do you actually motivate and inspire such behavior? For one, it requires a radical change in we way we currently measure creativity and progress. Sir Ken Robinson’s  TEDTalk  —one of the most viewed and talked-about TED talks of all time— states that the way we assess and evaluate pupils is harmful to their innate creativity, learning, and development. Children are all measured equally and individually using uniform and standardized metrics. Children are punished —left behind— for not meeting certain requirements and learning goals set out by national policy.

We see the same process in measuring and evaluating innovation progress in corporations.  Evaluation “gates” defined that all innovation teams have to get through to receive further funding.  They have to present their ideas in a uniform format, always with compelling business projections, and show progress in terms of meeting all kinds of audits (technical, regulatory, market, environment, corporate policy, etc.).  Any team that does not get through the gate does not get further funding and is quickly disbanded.

Instead of recognizing that failure is a great source of innovation spurring new ideas, it is most times used as a strict selection mechanism.

Innovation process measurement highlights failure.  Instead of recognizing that failure is a great source of innovation spurring new ideas, it is most times used as a strict selection mechanism.  So innovation teams do not like to get measured on their progress, as for them it feels like a sword of Damocles.

Accept slow and sudden bursts

Properly evaluating creativity or innovation is highly complex. Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed authors Francis WestleyBrenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton compare it to raising a child. Not only is raising a child highly complex, but even if you read every handbook out there on every possible way how to raise a child, it still does not guarantee success. To add to the hardship, every child requires a different approach: so a past success does not guarantee future success. There is no proven one-size-fits-all formula.

And success is often the result of serendipity, a breakthrough discovery that puts the innovation project suddenly in high speed forward after having spent countless months working without any progress.  How to assess a performance chart composed of long periods of no progress with intermittent breakthroughs?

So for the innovation team, even if it acts as one team supporting and challenging each other and even if it is shielded from upper management tracking their progress with the aim to prune failures, measuring performance is very elusive.  They can track the amount of learning and options for breakthrough created in the process.  In most cases they are just on a high-paced search hoping to find gold before their food runs out or someone enlightened brings them a small bit more food to keep searching.

By Menno van Dijk & Laurie Kemp

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Currently finalizing a MSc Environment and Resource Management (Energy Studies), Laurie Kemp attained a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) in 2013. The broad nature of the program allowed her to delve into Social Systems from various perspectives: focusing on Law, Political Science and Economics. An avid idealist and globetrotter, Laurie is passionate about social and green innovation and bottom-up initiatives seeking to empower individuals and drive positive social change.


THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

This article was originally published at THNK.org.
Main image: Results Effect Achievement Assessment Evaluate Concept from Shutterstock.com

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