Seven Signs Your Innovation System is Sustainable

Innovation renders other products and processes obsolete. Ironically, innovation systems themselves can suffer the same fate when they become static or lack ideation-implementation balance.   Mainly because we lose sight of the bigger picture and check that the innovation strategy supports the company’s current direction.

With the disturbing trend of innovation programs closing down after three or four years, setting up and maintaining a sustainable system is a major challenge for innovation managers.

What can you do to keep your innovation system performing as intended and delivering a return on investment in fresh ideas?

Applying strategic and systems thinking principles, here are seven signs to look for when giving your innovation system a regular health check, to keep the pipeline flowing and the outcomes coming.

Consider how these elements are interacting with and impacting on the whole system.

Monitoring and evaluation frameworks provide useful data for decision-making.

As organisational strategies change, innovation metrics should change too, so they continue to align with the corporate purpose and strategic objectives of the board and senior management team. What’s your process for reviewing and modifying M&E frameworks to ensure the innovation system remain relevant?

Regular and relevant injections of ideation.

Has your organisation (like many are wont to do) become locked into one or two ideation approaches as everyone becomes ‘comfortable’ with the program? Regularly reviewing how your company generates new ideas, and makes sure such ideas are adding value, is a smart move. Often, planning different ideation approaches for different time horizons or strategic priorities will result in improved outcomes.  We like to say that people support what they help create so customer and key supply chain partner engagement is critical for success. 

Well-oiled stage gates.

It’s common enough – once a stage gate process is locked in it’s rarely modified. When you’re reviewing an innovation system, ask ‘why is this information is required?’ This simple question will help you determine if the stage gate is still functioning. Check that it’s clear what each stage gate is doing, what data is required at that point, and who should be undertaking the assessment.

As innovation systems mature, we need to remember that healthy systems are open systems.  So, some proof of concept projects is interrelated with the activities of external collaborators, such as research centres or supply chain links. It is important that these new initiatives are mapped against your stage gates or that your stage gates are modified to enable R&D outcomes to link seamlessly with your system (i.e. we know this as open innovation).

Proof of Concept (POC) project designs are commercially focused.

POC projects are most effective when both technical and management people are involved (also known as multidisciplinary teams).  This ensures that the activities feed multi-dimensional data to the decision-makers. Do your project designers in this process understand commercialisation pathways and the complexity of turning ideas into outcomes that generate value for the organisation, as well as the technical possibilities? Well-designed projects don’t always result in successful projects but they do improve the chances.

Innovation upskilling is ongoing.

Organisations often introduce a lot of training at the start of an innovation program to build the culture needed to sustain it. Over time, however, staff and directors change; and while onboarding or handovers are helpful, the new people may not have the skills or experience to participate with confidence. Consider conducting refresher training programs as well introductory level sessions to keep the program energised with enthusiasm.  We like to call these booster shoots.

An interactive innovation champion network

The enthusiasm of your innovation champions (in your team or across the whole company) often depends on two things: how long the innovation system has been running and the number of wins they’ve enjoyed.   We love the saying that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.

Do you have innovation champions in all departments who share their team’s efforts to motivate company-wide effort? What happens to the ‘corporate innovation knowledge’ when staff leave? What about when responsibilities for innovation are inherited by or handed over to staff members who are less engaged? Looking at the commitment of everyone in the innovation champion network helps you to see where the gaps and cracks might widen, because ensuring you have the right people powering the innovation system it crucial to its sustainability.

The innovation system supports the company’s current strategy.

Sustainable innovation systems adjust to align with corporate developments, not lag behind or drift off course. Taking a Systems Thinking approach to keeping your innovation system going strong means checking:

  1. Where do we want to be? (our ends, outcomes, purposes, goals, holistic vision)
  2. How will we know when we get there? (a quantifiable feedback system)
  3. Where are we now? (today’s issues and problems)
  4. How do we get there? (close the gap from C ➞ A holistically)
  5. What will/may change in this environment in the future?

Innovation programs can be renewed, reinvigorated, or redesigned without starting from scratch. Plan for continuous system innovation and improvement rather than succumb to obsolescence.

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