Innovation activity is at an all-time high.

From idea competitions and startup incubators to virtual whiteboards and design thinking workshops, there is no shortage of mechanisms for brainstorming what’s possible in an organization. It’s exciting to have so many ideas to work with.

But what happens next? Eventually, you need to identify which solutions best fit your business needs. Ideation on its own isn’t enough to drive innovation outcomes—and could even be a waste of resources if not governed properly. To drive outcomes, you need disciplined portfolio management, as Rachel Kuhr Conn, Founder and CEO of Productable, outlines below.

Problem: Game-Changing Ideas Get Stuck at Square One

Without a reliable system for testing early-stage ideas, orgs are leaving innovation ROI on the table. Gartner has found that business leaders underfund transformational projects by ~33% due to ineffective innovation project evaluation methods. It’s not enough to come up with an idea. You need a way to decide if—and to what extent—it should be funded.

This challenge is all too common in organizations across the public and private sectors. For example, a process improvement leader in the U.S. Air Force recently told me, “Everybody’s got great ideas. But we need the great ideas that matter to get horsepower behind them.” The key phrase here is “great ideas that matter.” To maximize your innovation performance, you need more than just idea volume. You need a system for surfacing the best solutions, separating them from the non-starters, and allocating enough resources to drive development. Here’s how.

Solution: Drive Outcomes With Portfolio Management Discipline

Imagine a thriving innovation program. Leaders have established clear goals for all innovation efforts. Thousands of grassroots innovators are continuously developing ideas in line with those goals, confident in their next steps. Innovation managers have the tools, alignment, and data they need to make informed decisions on projects. And at the organizational level, leadership has a clear roadmap for achieving ideal outcomes even faster. All of this is possible—and it’s actually pretty boring operationally. The key is committing to a portfolio management discipline.

The merits of portfolio management in the innovation space are well-documented. Gartner reported that organizations with a portfolio-level approach to measuring and reporting innovation drive more efficient growth. BCG found that 94% of “Innovation-Ready Companies” have implemented end-to-end portfolio tracking as a source of truth to guide portfolio decisions. But adopting a portfolio-based model is easier said than done. It can be hard to know where to start and whether you’re on track. How do you move from idea generation to rigorous idea development the right way?

A portfolio maturation framework can make it easier to reorient from ideas to outcomes. Here is the framework the team at Productable developed based on their 100+ years of combined experience in corporate and federal innovation operations:

Level 1: Disparate

At the first stage of portfolio maturity, many people are running innovation efforts concurrently with little to no alignment of information. Innovation leaders support one innovation or innovator at a time, which makes it difficult to manage blind spots and scale support. Plus, the organization is often renegotiating whether the innovation program is worth investing in and to what extent it aligns with strategic priorities. This is our baseline.

Level 2: Visible

At Level 2, innovation leaders have started to create infrastructure for knowing what does and doesn’t exist in their innovation portfolio. Innovators know whether their ideas have been incorporated into the organization’s documented innovation efforts. For example, maybe each idea is searchable in a software platform by title, project owner, or topic. Innovation leaders know what projects are happening and can start to think about activities like idea sourcing, documentation, and assignment of owners.

Level up by focusing on the basics. To advance your innovation portfolio to Level 2, you will need to audit your innovation activities and introduce new norms.

  • First, align on your team’s mission. How would you qualitatively describe the ideal outcome of your efforts?
  • Next, establish operational groups and roles. Who will contribute to innovation efforts? Who will be the owners who oversee the team? Who will be the managers that run the team day-to-day?
  • Collect the information you need to drive operational progress. Take inventory of which projects are active and note the details, owner, and status of each one. Then, make key agreements and decisions known. Outline who needs what from whom at what time. Identify the decisions needed on each project, the data needed to inform those decisions, and the owner of each decision.
  • Create a basic roll-up of the current state of your innovation program for your organization’s leadership team.

Level 3: Standardized

Taking a step beyond project visibility, the third level of portfolio maturity involves designing ways to manage activities and resources toward desired outcomes. Innovators have clear goals and criteria to work against. They can rapidly resolve issues by reporting barriers to managers and collaborators. Innovation leaders have a steady supply of project proposals across all strategic priorities plus a centralized mechanism for managing a pipeline of projects. The organization can easily access data and stories from innovation efforts to understand progress toward outcomes.

Level up by focusing on repeatability. As Director of Innovation for Mark Cuban’s portfolio of 200+ companies, Rachel reached a point where visibility wasn’t cutting it. She needed standardization to reduce my innovation management workload and empower companies across the portfolio to achieve their potential. Along the way, she learned that the journey to Level 3 requires a thoughtful balance of people management, progress management, and process refinement. Here’s what that looks like:

  • First, establish how often your team will meet. Weekly generally works well.
  • Within each recurring meeting, check in on operational progress. What is the current state of innovation projects? Has the team honored agreed-upon action items and deadlines? What decisions have you made?
  • Then, begin to explore opportunities for further standardization. To improve decision-making, you could define stages for your innovation pipeline and specify decision criteria that projects must meet in order to advance to each stage of development. For example, you may decide that every project needs a clear problem statement before moving into validation or prototyping.
  • To improve progress management, you could start to track metrics at the project level and at the portfolio level. What progress are you making towards decision criteria? Towards your desired outcomes? How much time are projects spending in each stage? What were your expected vs. actual shots on goal?
  • To improve collaboration around innovation, you might experiment with tools for sharing wins, reporting and resolving barriers, and integrating feedback.
  • As you bring structure and standardization to your innovation program, roll up your efforts to the organization level so leadership can follow along.

Level 4: Thriving

The cornerstone of a thriving portfolio is predictability. Innovation teams that have achieved full portfolio maturity are able to use standard data to forecast the resources and efforts required to produce their desired results. Innovators use learnings from past experiments to advance projects towards business objectives. Innovation leaders make sound investment decisions based on forecasted methods, tools, and processes.

Get to level 4 by focusing on predictability. Companies like Nike and P&G do this well. Leaders use quantitative models to embrace forward-looking risk-taking, right-size their investments at each innovation horizon, and make optimal go/no-go decisions on projects.

A thriving innovation portfolio discipline takes time. To truly optimize your portfolio, you need to leverage past data to forecast—and maximize—future results.

  • Software can help you create a predictive analytics engine that serves up just-in-time recommendations for decisions, deliverables, resource allocation and more.
  • You can even use data to improve team dynamics, assigning collaborators based on their personalities, skills, or interests.
  • Lastly, predictive analytics can have implications for people empowerment. Clear data trails make it increasingly possible for people to do work that’s aligned to their skills, their interests, and the outcomes they are most passionate about. More compelling than today’s corporate reward systems, the promise of deeply meaningful work has the potential to create powerful incentives that unlock true organizational transformation.

Create Outcomes While Increasing Your Portfolio Maturity

At any point in your maturity, you can drive outcomes. However, the higher the level of maturity, the higher the likelihood of predictable success. By actively evaluating and leveling up your innovation team’s portfolio maturity, you’ll set your organization up for a clearer path from ideation to business results. Here’s how to get started.

First, assemble an internal team to investigate your portfolio maturity. Have each person independently review the definitions above and diagnose whether your innovation portfolio falls at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, or Level 4. (No judgment! This is all about evidence-gathering and honest analysis). Next, discuss your findings as a group and use either a simple majority or a weighting system to identify your portfolio maturity level.

Once you’ve chosen a portfolio maturity level, start to explore process improvements. Rather than overhauling your whole innovation program, which could cause confusion and burnout, try testing out a handful of improvements at a time to understand what works. If you’re at maturity level 2, for example, you might set up a leadership meeting to clarify a set of ideal innovation outcomes. From there, you might audit your existing innovation projects and assign owners to share status updates on a bi-weekly basis. As you gather team feedback on what’s working, where to improve, and what to try next, you could layer on additional experiments to move closer to a Level 3 portfolio and beyond.

By taking the appropriate steps to diagnose and level up your portfolio, you’ll be on your way to pulling more of the right initiatives out of the idea stage and over the finish line when it matters most. A portfolio management discipline that achieves repeatable outcomes is a powerful thing—not just because it drives results for your business, but also because it builds credibility. With portfolio maturity comes a steady stream of resources, trust, and organization-wide support that will get you even closer to your next breakthrough.