We all know that innovation management is hard work. Yet somehow, for some innovation professionals the challenge is harder than for others. Innovation managers are often the “lone wolf” in their company, especially when they are just getting started. Whether systematic online innovation management didn’t happen at all before or whether the last program just failed, it can be a serious challenge to convince management and fellow employees that there is actually business value in what you do.

If you’re one of the lone wolfs, here’s some guidance on how to get started when you set out to make innovation management work at your company.

Assess Your Company's Culture

There are five key items to boost trust in your program. However, before you start executing, gather data and determine the shape of your company’s innovation culture. This will help you to prioritize your actions. If you have been with the company for a while you might just know; if you are a new hire you might have to investigate.

The two most common challenges we find in our client projects are:

  1. Employees are unaware of the innovation program. This is usually the case when systematic employee innovation management did not happen in the past. Innovations were the job of the regular R&D department(s) and nobody else’s business. Beware: despite the fact that they have no prior experience with innovation management, some colleagues might have developed a general cynicism towards corporate initiatives if those failed in the past.
  2. Employees are skeptical towards the innovation program. This is something we see when past innovation programs were not successful. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they entirely failed to deliver results – maybe there was simply a new innovation manager all of a sudden (you???), and decided new tools and processes were needed.

One of the tools we use to analyze a company’s innovation culture is the “Stack Analysis”, where we classify and sort the participants into 5 categories:

1. Enthusiastic. Bought in, will participate in almost all campaigns if they can.

2. Interested. Bought in, will participate if the campaign is relevant.

3. Cautious. Aware of the program, but unlikely to participate unless they see the benefits or value of doing so. 

4. Unaware. Won't participate unless made aware, will then fit into one of the three categories above. 

5. Sceptical or negative. Blockers to them participating that will need to be removed.

The Five Pillars of Trust

Once you have a good feeling for your company’s culture, you can now start to improve the situation:

1. Communication

“Communication is everything”, as Sven Grave, Innovation Manager at Wilo, once put it. It’s not enough to put a poster on the wall and make an announcement in the company newsletter. You have to run a proper internal marketing campaign. It’s great if you can come up with a role model campaign similar to what Wilo did. But even if not – make sure you got the core components of successful innovation communication right:

Brand your innovation program. Look at successful programs like Liberty Global’s “Spark”, Merck’s “Ignite”, or Wilo’s “Wings” (and many more); they are all branded, and actions, events, and items in context with the innovation program can easily be identified by their employees. It also helps to create an identity around your team – it becomes more than “yet another management initiative”. It’s a movement people would like to be part of.

Don’t stop after the initial call to action. What we often see happening in new innovation initiatives is a rapid increase in interest at the beginning – it’s new and exciting! And then participation dies a way. The novelty has worn off (indeed quite similar to Gartner’s Hype Cycle). To get your participation to the “plateau of productivity”, you need to continuously communicate:

News in the program (potentially any point of interest)

Successful ideas, and/or the most interesting ideas (just go by community voting)

Feedback to the contributors. This one is crucial! Tell them what is happening with their ideas frequently. If the idea gets rejected, tell them why and provide guidance to submit more helpful ideas next time.

Recognize your contributors. Yeah, rewards and incentives are a hot topic. Monetary or non-monetary? Most of us have at least watched the illustrated video of Dan Pink’s “Drive” by now. It really depends on your company’s culture, and more often than not it’s about intrinsic motivation. Whether non-monetary prizes, tickets to great innovation trade fairs, or simply trophies of some kind – make sure your contributors feel appreciated. But watch out: the wrong types of incentives can scare people off or make them feel awkward. Not everybody is happy about a dinner with the CEO. 

2. Quick wins

Having your own incubator department working on the next disruptive startup is awesome. However, even if you have access to an incubator, you still have a problem: major innovations, whether disruptive or “only” sustaining, are few and far between. And they are risky, by their very nature.
If you have to convince people of your program in the first place, you need quick wins. Focus on tactical idea campaigns that provide you with ideas that can be implemented quickly and easily AND provide a visible benefit. To name but one example: Equinity, a specialist for finance and administration services, was very successful with this approach. They ran an idea campaign around a new calling center and were “astounded by the level of engagement from the teams involved.” Within 2 months they conducted the campaign and started the implementation of the first ideas.
Classic areas for quick wins are cost savings and efficiency improvements. Once the acceptance for you program increases in your company, you can move to more strategic areas of innovation (see point 5).

3. Advocate program

Some people just love innovation and all the liveliness and exciting projects that usually come with it. These are the guys that represent the bright green layer in our stack analysis. Innovation advocates (or champions as they are sometimes called) are volunteers that help spread the word of innovation and keep their colleagues motivated about the program.

The process of creating and harnessing a network of innovation advocates? I will just outline the main points for you here:

How do you find them? We can identify the right people by analyzing participant behavior: they tend to collaborate more and help others with their ideas.

What do you ask of them? Usually, advocates are volunteers. So make sure you don’t exploit them. Their main task is to keep the discussion going, spread news, and keep people motivated.

How do you keep them engaged? Well, they must become part of the program, more than just useful assets. Train them, and explain your goals and your approach to them. Also, make sure they feel as special as they are and that they grow together, as a community. You should meet with them on a regular base. If in-person meetings are impossible, do it virtually.


Get management sponsors on board. They are the faces of an idea campaign and linked to the associated challenge. However, be careful when choosing a sponsor, not every bigwig in your company is well suited for the job. Two things to keep in mind:

Most importantly, it has to be somebody who has both the desire and resources to implement the ideas submitted to their campaign. Sounds like a no-brainer? It isn’t! You may find people who want to support you, and therefore are ready to be a sponsor for any given campaign – but they don’t have a personal interest to execute on the submissions. Or you have managers complaining about a situation, but they don’t have the people or budget to actually implement a solution.
Make sure the guy in front of you really feels the pain and has the money to pay the cure. Otherwise you might end up with a great solution nobody feels responsible for. And this could cause participants to lose their trust in the innovation program.

Ideally, sponsors already have a solid track record in your company for getting things done. This will increase your contributor’s confidence that their submissions will actually be taken seriously and that one of their ideas will be implemented.

Strategic alignment

Your innovation management program needs to be aligned with what the company tries to achieve – or it will falter and sink into insignificance. You have to meet an actual need, generate true business value, whether you save costs, make processes more efficient, or create new business. Your innovation community will not (at least not for long) participate in a program that is not able to demonstrate value.

As mentioned above, start tactically. You need success stories early on. However, once you have sufficiently justified the existence of your innovation program, try and align your idea campaigns with the strategic goals of you company. That will help to give them higher visibility and significantly improves the probability of seeing ideas implemented – which in turn, you guessed it, inspires trust in your program.

The advice above is drawn from experience from our client projects. Time and time again we are faced with these challenges, and especially innovation managers on the outset of their program want to know how others have overcome them. If you would like to discuss the topic in greater detail or in case you object to any of the points, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. 

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