Innovation teams provide an important function to every company’s progress and evolution.

But they are much easier to disband than core functions like legal, finance, or HR. In fact, innovation teams might be viewed as expendable as external consultations. So innovation teams find themselves fighting for the right to survive.

Here are some of the strategies innovation teams can take to step out of the survival stage and establish themselves as key functions to any business, as shared by Tendayi Viki.

A snippet from Tendayi Viki’s session during the Innov8rs Connect Unconference, June-September 2020. To watch the full session recording, join Innov8rs Community with a Content or Premium Pass.

Structure The Innovation Team

An innovation team cannot pick a winning idea on day one. The team makes multiple small bets that are put through the stages of (1) discovery of customer value, (2) validation of the business model, and (3) acceleration in scale. Not all ideas will succeed, but the goal is to find a successful idea that will enter the business portfolio.

To build a thriving innovation ecosystem, you must have a pipeline of ideas. The only way to ensure a pipeline is to build an innovation program designed to meet the corporation’s core needs. This requires the innovation team to be authentically deliberate about delivering value. The number one job for innovators is to create the innovation ecosystem that drives new revenue and growth and changes the culture so that the growth can be created in a repeatable way.

Establish Key Relationships

Innovation teams often operate outside the core functions of the company, but it is actually very important to establish key relationships. Understand the different departments in the company in addition to product teams, like legal, marketing, and finance.

These teams will be important as you strive to take innovation products to market. Finance controls the purse strings – not only for initial development but also to take a product into the primary portfolio. If an innovation product enters the business portfolio, marketers will need to understand the purpose and benefits of the product and how it fits into the portfolio.

There are a number of things innovation teams can do to develop relationships and deliberately structure their programs to establish these key relationships. One successful strategy is aligning with legal and compliance on a collaborative process for review of innovation projects.

As an example, the innovation team at a large European airline arranged a meeting with legal and compliance. They asked legal and compliance to advise them on what criteria must be met across the organization before a product or offering is allowed out into the world. The legal and compliance team wrote each requirement on a sticky note. The innovation team then walked legal and compliance through the stages of discovery, validation, and acceleration. Each sticky note requirement was placed at the stage where the validation must occur.

This exercise allowed the innovation team to develop a product lifecycle map for legal and compliance. The team was able to create a process that allowed them to turn to legal and compliance only when they were going outside the established guardrails. Not only did this streamline the process for the innovation team, but it also established legitimacy for the innovation team across the organization.

Alignment on Decisions

Innovation teams are constantly collecting data from experiments throughout the development and validation stages of the innovation process. While data is helpful, it does not mean anything without a clear process for making decisions.
To establish an effective innovation process, the team should have a clear understanding of how decisions will be made within the corporation on innovations.

While no process is flawless, outlining an understanding with stakeholders on what data points will drive acceleration will (1) help guide the innovation team’s decisions, and (2) allow the team to quantify success.

Also, consider addressing failure with company leaders. Failure is inevitable in innovation, and this needs to be understood and embraced before an innovation team can thrive. Otherwise, the team is crippled by the fear of failure.

Focus on Intentionality

Whether your innovation team is brand new or an existing team within an organization, take a step back and evaluate whether you have taken the necessary steps to establish your team as a core function in the company. Think about the values of the company, the business goals, and the gaps in the portfolio.

Innovators often find passion and excitement from the ideas, but you must remember that companies are focused on revenue. Not all innovation projects need to drive this revenue, but it will never disappear as a goal.

The innovation team should be able to speak to how it contributes to the overall aims of the company of either growth or transformation.

Make sure your team has a clear process for tackling innovation, validating results, and vetting recommendations. Nothing will set your team back more quickly than a string of bad recommendations that are not supported by data.

This is a piece from The Innovator’s Handbook 2021. If you’re keen to dive into the best and latest on corporate innovation, request your copy here. To discuss anything Strategy, Leadership & Governance, join our upcoming Innov8rs Connect online event, 16-20 November.