Right before January 1st, I felt an (in)explicable urge to “rant” about New Year’s resolutions on LinkedIn. And I had my reasons: websites were, as they usually are, racing to publish/ showcase stock advice, standard methods/tools and other types of “one-size-fits-all” solutions for all conceivable innovation management problems.But here is the catch: “one-size-fits-all” solutions often fit none. That is not to say established frameworks are unimportant – we use BCG’s growth share matrix all the time. But it is how you customize, scrutinise, and ultimately use these aides to innovation and strategy development that counts. “Ready-made” plans, tips or guides are, at best, just starting points for a much longer, more deeply fulfilling journey: the drafting a personalised strategy and roadmap. Rant ended. 

In the spirit of that post (and another, more convincing one by Roberto Verganti) I’ve pulled together 4 tips for better performance in the year to come. These tips come from the energetic innovation practitioners I’ve mingled with last year, and were lightly infused with some of the latest academic research in the field. 

Hope they will serve as great starting points for your own (re)solutions.


Tip #1: Think in layers (or circles)

Approaching innovation and collaboration with consistency is not a bad thing. But not all innovation partners are held equal. While the temptation is often there, innovation managers should be mindful about holding the same presumptions about all their partners. For example, not all partners will respond to the same incentives, have the same working style, or share the same objectives. 

A simple solution to this problem is to think in layers (thanks go to Andy Zynga for the tip). That is, to map partners onto three concentric circles. The first area, closest to the core, contains all employees and units. The second, includes the trusted network of partners. The third, and most distant, includes the so-called non-obvious others. 

As they experiment with open innovation, managers can start by engaging the most distant partners first (the area furthest from the core) and learn from this experience. As they become more proficient at running campaigns or designing joint projects, managers can start engaging (and aligning with) the trusted network of partners. Eventually, the lessons make their way into the entire organization, and that is where true change occurs. In this third and final phase, we see innovation culture, structure, processes and metrics aligning. 

Creating repeatable models for success, especially within the inner most circle, is often the hardest step and therefore represents a hallmark of innovation maturity. At Airbus, for example, the process is called “creating a core innovation capability” and is championed by a team of 25 professionals. 

button showing two planes from airbus flying

Tip #2: Check what you (really) need to get the work done

Surveys, benchmarking, balanced scorecards, identifying core competencies and core rigidities, ecosystem mapping. There is no shortage of methods or frameworks for improved innovation performance. The danger with any tool, however, is the trade-off between sophistication and utility. The more sophisticated they are, the more they can obstruct actual work (thanks go to David Willets at Baxi Heating for this one). 

Seth Godin, a man that changed the way people think about marketing and work, recently covered this topic under the umbrella of “performance”. Following his analogy of the corkscrew and fast car (Godin eludes to Elon Musk’s Roadster…), innovation managers should ask themselves: what level of “performance” (sophistication) do we need from our tools (or whatever else we are using) to get the work done? To get us where we need to go? 

button showing the ase study cover

Is expensive training the solution? Design thinking perhaps? What about the Want-Find-Get-Manage Framework, Adobe’s Kickbox, the Business Model Canvas, Lewin’s Change Model (unfreeze-move-refreeze), getting the customer around the table… 

Often, simplicity and customization make for the best option. 

Tip #3: Give flexibility-as-a-strategy a go 

Alongside perspective (thinking in layers) and simplicity (adequacy of tools used), having a flexible approach to innovation and strategy represents another important asset (here the thanks go to Stan Heuvink at HERE Technologies and Alison Freer at Durhamlane). In fact, flexibility – e.g. quickly adapting after a setback – has probably become one of the most sought-after capabilities in the business world. 

In her best-selling book “The End Of Competitive Advantage”, Rita Gunter-McGrath argues that the secret to achieving sustained growth is an “interesting combination of stability and dynamism”. More precisely, stability in leadership, values, relationship with customers and quality of network ties (relationships with partners), combined with dynamism (flexibility) in terms of markets chosen and opportunities sought. 

Whether doing something new, building on what they already have, or reacting opportunistically to emerging possibilities, it is key that organizations leave room for manoeuvre. Flexibility – in its various forms – allows organizations to regroup quickly when faced with disruption, experiment with different modes of open innovation, integrate smart failure into their routine and even make new employees’ voices heard (excellent tip from GSK). 

Flexibility also allows companies to integrate interesting trends when it comes to organizing for innovation. Holocracy (see Budapest-based Lab.Coop following the Zappos Holocracy Experiment), innomediaries that offer staff augmentation and a variety of other services, or creating demand-based, temporary innovation teams – a powerful practice according to VentureBeat, are all great examples. 

Tip #4: Know what you know… and what you don’t know about managing innovation 

During last year’s Innovation Managers Forum in Bonn, some of the more experienced attendees shared a few nuggets of advice with innovation managers just starting out. The list included the following: listen to your consultant (Technicolor), be open to new ideas (DEWA), “crawl, walk, run” – start small and showcase something (minor project) as quickly as possible (Liberty Global), utilize your network – learn from them (Saint-Gobain), pick one goal that is important and pursue it (Baxi Heating), get support from community as well as management support (World of Medicine), communicate, communicate, communicate… (Wilo). 

Knowing how to proceed is difficult without first “taking stock”, though. Stock of existing, well-functioning practices (what an organization knows about adequately managing innovation) as well as practices and capabilities that might be lacking (what an organization does not know, but probably should). 

Self-scrutiny (through a maturity assessment, for example) is a necessary but seldom easy exercise. Why? Because assessments and benchmarking can unearth painful truths about why companies are failing. For example, a question like: “What is blocking innovation in my organization?” could point to the accounting system (for failing to account for the real potential of new technologies), the metrics/ valuation methods, the esteemed annual roadmap (for blocking 120% of employees’ the time), top management’s risk-adversity (not the lack of resources), or top researchers’ not-invented-here-syndrome. All “touchy” topics. 

While difficult in the short run, learning to know what you know (and what you don’t) about managing innovation, paves, in time, the way to more honest, steadfast strategy.

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