The essence of innovation is about improvement - and we know that this isn’t limited to radical breakthroughs. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

But we’ve reached an inflection point when it comes to innovation; a significant shift in how leadership is looking at our intrapreneur programs, our ideation sessions, and our venture arms.

Yes, innovation programs are now widely adopted - and intermittent success stories from the lofty 1% of ‘lean’ corporations tell our leaders to lean further into the new, invest in agile ways of working, and build new business models.

After all, innovation is now the status quo - the way to stay alive in a world of exponential change. So they’ve been told.

But somewhere along the line, we failed to manage the expectations of our experiments, and executives are no longer looking sideways to the likes of Spotify and Amazon to see how we can replicate their organizational design, their processes, and their culture.

Because they expected to see similar results in their own backyard, and now they’re looking to us, the innovators, for some concrete answers.

Julia Kylliäinen, Marketing Manager at innovation management platform Viima, shares several learnings about how to bring ideas to life based on their inherent value, and the challenges she sees in doing this today.

Contribute to clear business goals

It’s a simple truth we often lose sight of in the race to create something mind-bending and unique:

“Corporations are investing more money and time into innovation activities such as hackathons, but they’re not necessarily putting much thought into how these activities contribute to overall business objectives. Tendayi Viki’s talk at Innov8rs Helsinki really laid this challenge out well.” Julia explains.

As a finance manager or a salesperson, you don’t have to justify your function within the organization - your success is easy to measure and well understood. Innovation managers are somehow stuck in the trough of disillusionment, with initiatives often failing to live up to their promise of generating new business. This becomes all the more problematic when the program is designed to generate a different outcome entirely (such as piloting a new methodology, or adopting a new way of working).

The more you can measure your program healthily in relation to its outputs - and the more related these are to your business goals - the greater your program’s chance of survival and success:

  • Ignore vanity KPIs which don’t serve your bigger goals, such as ‘volume of ideas’ vs. ‘quality of ideas’
  • Don’t measure ROI too early: Consider the inevitable delay when it comes to changes in output metrics because disruptive innovation takes time to show
  • Create a holistic approach to innovation metrics, which measure several of these five pillars: capabilities, structures, culture, strategy, and business/ product

Julia has written more on how to measure innovation here as well.

Be inclusive, not alienating

Innovation has long been seen as a black sheep or a basement experiment, designed to segregate the core organization from the cool kids working away on a secret lab project.

There is a distant air of privilege about long-term versus short-term accountability within corporate roles: control functions like compliance need to stick the daily grind, whilst intrapreneurs are perceived to have both the corporate stability to stay afloat - and the flexibility of an entrepreneur.

Any lack of understanding or friction between control functions (which are stereotypically seen to stifle innovation) and innovation roles (seen by the core business as high-risk) would be better-solved by involving compliance or finance in your innovation program in the first instance, to build scalable processes which help accelerate progress - rather than hinder it:

“When I see innovation happening effectively, programs are operating at each level of the organization - not only one corner. Innovative companies [like Bayer, as seen at Innov8rs Helsinki] are able to scale how they work and what they produce across the company effectively - because the value is clear for everyone from the get-go.”

Attract leaders as advocates

As an innovator, the C-Suite can be your biggest enablers or your biggest blockers: it follows that there are also some bridges to be built here too. Where leaders need to trust, invest and see the bigger picture - innovators need to make sure innovation goals and metrics are made clear in relation to the current business landscape, focusing on quick wins and being sure to prove incremental value based on contributing to bottom-line.

“Although innovation is on the executive agenda, there’s still a big disconnect between the top and the rest of the company. They’re perhaps not taking an active part in leading the execution, so this requires clear communication to make sure leaders understand what you’re doing, and how everything links together.

Corporate leaders can no longer be passive supporters of innovation if they want to make this a legitimate part of their business. They are the only ones who can change how it’s managed, tracked and measured, but equally, it’s the responsibility of innovators to show them.”

Create an ongoing process, not a one-shot program

Middle management might question why your first innovation program didn’t immediately yield a groundbreaking idea that saved the business from being at risk of extinction. This isn’t the right perspective, but it’s also the program manager’s job to manage what outcomes they expect - aka - your responsibility.

“Innovation is not an ‘aha’ moment that just arrives. It’s not one idea, it’s a series of continuous steps towards that goal, so you have to try and test what works and what doesn’t. You can wait for one big magical idea to come along, but I don’t believe that myself.

Does innovation directly lead to the next big idea? Not necessarily; the process is the way to the right idea. It’s about conveying this and not expecting to get it right straight away - it takes time, and practice.”

All ideas deserve follow-up

It’s a constant chicken-egg cycle between ideas, people and processes: If you have a great idea but no follow up process, then the idea falls flat. But there’s also no function for a great ideation process without the ideas as fuel in the first place. What does a good balance look like between these pillars?

“Ideas alone won’t make any difference. You can’t know in advance which are good and which are bad, so you need to work on those together and engage the right people, making sure the right talents are onboard to develop them.

Real progress happens when you start systematically collect ideas - making them a legitimate part of the business - so those ideas don’t disappear.

You should never come up with an ideation program without proper follow-up. The worst thing you can do is engage, then drop the ideas. People are busy and this is demotivating. The purpose is to see the idea through, and work on these together, test the most viable proposals, and see what works.”