For a Powerful Innovation Program, Be Sure to Open Up Your Lens


I was speaking for a group of senior executives last week and a great question came up: “What is the most destructive thing you see when working with new innovation teams in existing firms?”

As my mind flashed through dozens of projects and larger programs, there was one thing that came up over and over again.

Before I give you my answer, let me give you some background for context.  What would you say the success rate is for larger firms in the innovation space?  Cap Gemini did a study and found that more than 75% of the firms they looked at had less than a 50% success rate when it came to completing projects they had undertaken.

This is a stunning stat. These are powerful firms, yet when they take on a new business project, there is a 50% chance it will go south.

Now back to my answer: I explained that the seeds of a project’s demise are set in motion way before a formal project team gets established.  The best analogy I can give here is a golf swing.  The seeds of a bad shot start when you pull the club head back, not after contact and follow through.

If pressed for a one-word answer, I would say this: Pre Work

There are three elements at play here:

  1. The first spot where projects and programs get off track is in the formation and down selection process.  The usual culprit is that the selection universe is not made diverse enough to capture projects outside the firm’s comfort zone.  Over the years, I’ve developed a series of tools to capture a firm’s unique strengths, insert external viewpoints and come up with a custom output (more here).
  2. The second spot is in how the team is commissioned.  Most firms are powerful risk reduction engines for products and services that fit their existing business models.  These processes are incredibly valuable for current programs, but are deadly for innovative work.  Setting up the team to work through the STRIVE model (post here), allows them to acknowledge there are unknown unknowns that need to be dealt with.  By budgeting for them, and going after the key risks, a team can clear the path systematically and build value layer by layer.
  3. The third point of concern has to do with the team.  It’s not uncommon for the best team members to appear fully consumed in their “day job” and unable to take on the new work.  What I have found over and over again is that when presented with the opportunity, new resources can step into the gap formed when the key subject matter expert is moved to the high-value new project (revitalizing their career, as well).

How do you greatly increase your percentages?

  1. Open the aperture.  Use a process that starts with a deep reflective dive, brings new insight, and allows you to grab the most robust project seeds.  Most firms are the absolute experts in their current domain, yet it is highly probable that the next big thing needs to work in a “shifted” domain.  To see that clearly requires you to look at the broader landscape.
  2. Start the team with obtainable expectations.  Set a true “reality box.”  How much are you willing to spend to work through the unknown unknowns? In the STRIDE model, we do a very deep dive on the “R” portion of the journey.  Recall that “R” stands for real, and helps to remember that changes are inevitable once we put a plan into action in the real world.  As firms get mature, it is easy for them to get overly perfectionistic, and spend too much effort in strategy and testing of “known unknowns.” When this happens, they then miss the deep learning that comes from meeting the “unknown unknowns.”
  3. Structure a real team environment for success.  This includes razor sharp missional clarity, strong leadership, great sponsorship and sufficient expertise for the journey.  There also needs to be a great balance between a safe zone for experimentation and a sense of urgency to achieve milestones.  For additional recommendations, see the posts here and here.
  4. Invest in your growth leaders. Make sure they are being grown for the tasks even while they are simply doing their day job.  We know that the four key elements of successful growth leadership are the ability to architect a new initiative, develop sponsorship, catalyze progress and remain anchored in the authentic demands of the customer.  By thinking ahead and tasking potential growth leaders with activities that build these competencies, we ensure that when the time comes, they are ready to go.  You’ll find some additional resources here, here and here.

Building new and valuable projects efficiently can be greatly accelerated by giving yourself access to resources that can get you there faster.  If you’d like to save time, money and human resource, let me share a structured systematic approach to this. Give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here and set up a no-strings attached, 20-minute consultation.

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