Driving Innovation Based on What (and Who) You Know

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At one point or another, it seems that nearly every one of our clients has struggled to drive innovation. Whether they want to generate new ideas, evaluate which ideas have the most potential, manage the processes that can ensure maximum impact, or even “fail faster” on less promising ideas, innovation leaders face challenges at almost every turn.

While it’s important for organizations to generate, nurture, and execute on their ideas, we’ve found that many companies must first clear an even bigger hurdle: creating a culture that effectively surfaces and takes advantage of what (and who) they already “know.” At its core, that means leveraging connectivity—both internally and externally.

Here are some examples that demonstrate how we’ve helped clients harness their connectivity to identify and maximize new insights.

Tapping Into Internal Knowledge

One of the biggest untapped resources in any company is its own internal knowledge base. The larger the organization, the harder it becomes to capture ideas that spring from pet projects, personal passions, or custom client solutions. Organizations that can tap into these wells of internal knowledge can create a real advantage over their competitors. In reality, employees are often so focused on meeting immediate demands that they fail to communicate their insights with their peers. For those businesses, we’ve developed a few simple practices for capturing and sharing knowledge.

Surfacing Innovations Across the Company

Across companies and industries, most workers juggle a number of different projects. In the course of developing a new product, customizing offerings to meet a specific customer’s need, or simply implementing an internal process, employees can (and often do) come up with new ideas that can benefit their teams—and even the company at large. Simply documenting these insights over time can create a major source of knowledge. But employees are often running too quickly from one project to another. That means organizations must create simple, repeatable processes for capturing ideas—and then set expectations around documenting those learnings. For example:

  • Deal profiles: With an appropriately configured CRM tool, employees can easily capture and document critical information about deals—including the proposed product/service offerings, the reasons for winning or losing the business, and details about internal participants. In our experience, we’ve even seen companies make sales commissions contingent on the completion of these deal profiles.
  • Customer interaction reports: Of course, it’s imperative to collect and archive core documents for any customer project. But these files typically pile up in an enormous database that no busy employee can easily reference. We recommend creating a simple, searchable template that summarizes the key takeaways from a project: What was the customer problem or need? What did we offer to address the need? What was the result? What insights did we surface?

Sharing and Scaling Ideas Company-Wide

By implementing a few simple tactics, organizations can avoid creating vast online wastelands of project databases—and begin sharing information to foster connectivity.

  • Knowledge sharing sessions: The key to leveraging insights is to regularly bring peers together from across the organization. Even conference calls or webcasts can be good substitutes for face-to-face meetings. Just make sure to appoint a passionate connector or domain leader who can corral project owners and dig deep for precious insights.
  • Idea competitions: “Gamification” may seem like a buzzword, but we’ve seen a little competition go a long way towards engaging employees. Companies that excel at sharing often set up internal challenges to help identify and reward the most innovative ideas. And while peer recognition is a good motivator, it never hurts to add a small prize as a little extra incentive.

Taking Advantage of External Connections

In addition to its own internal resources, every company has access to an enormous pool of external insights. Organizations can not only tap into formal relationships—such as those with suppliers and vendors, partners, and customers—but also take advantage of informal connections between employees and outside thought-leaders and other innovators. But to effectively leverage these connections, leadership must create a culture that welcomes ideas from outside—and must build processes for deliberately seeking out new ideas. We’ve seen companies do this in a variety of ways, including:

  • Formal incentives: Some companies actually build external innovation into their employee evaluations—although typically it’s only as an upside kicker. It can be as simple as making sure managers motivate employees to participate in professional associations and conferences. In some cases, leadership even makes formal decisions on promotions and compensation based on a team member’s ability to bring external insights to planning discussions and product development activities.
  • Informal forums: While many firms may host internal idea sharing sessions, it’s rare that these meetings include external resources such as suppliers and vendors, customers, entrepreneurs, or thought leaders. But we’ve routinely seen how outside participants can dramatically transform idea sharing activities by bringing new perspectives and insights to the discussion. It can take a little extra effort, but the payoff can be significant.
  • Company visits: Teams can often learn a lot by visiting other companies and observing their processes and culture. Simply seeing a startup culture or a non-competing company’s supply chain processes can spark new ways of thinking about your own organization. And sometimes, these visits can lead to partnerships that can benefit both companies.

Creating an “Open Innovation” Mindset

At the end of the day, organizations must create cultures that can quickly identify and maximize ideas with the potential to grow—or transform—the business. These insights can either come from internal or external sources, including individuals, teams, thought leaders, or partner organizations. When your company can implement systems and processes to effectively generate, cultivate, and execute the best ideas, you’ll see employees’ horizons broaden—and the business can experience dynamic growth.

Is your business set up to identify winning ideas and maximize innovation? If not, what’s the next step toward a culture and a process that celebrates powerful thinking from any source? If so, what’s worked for you? As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions.