Imagine you've been tasked with the challenge of creating a delicious soup with only the ingredients you can find in your kitchen. Difficult, but not impossible right?
I like to think of building a thriving innovation program as the same concept; you already have the basics there in your organisation, but they're not prepared or mixed together in the right way to foster a successful program. And, if you want to make something special happen you need to bring in some new thinking and ‘spice’ from outside your four walls.
In early 2016, as the founding member of the Spotless Innovation Team, I was tasked with piecing together the early elements of our innovation program. Below I've outlined our key ingredients and tips for building your own innovation program from scratch.
- Vision and Strategy: The Recipe
The first and most important step is to write down your innovation strategy. This is your recipe and will guide everything you do. Ideally, innovation should be a part of the overall business strategy, so your innovation strategy should align with the strategic goals of the business.
Ask yourself these questions: What areas of your business should innovation efforts focus on? What are the key disruptive threats? How are you going to enable innovation to happen?
Lay it out in a document, share it with as many people as you can, get feedback and get people on board with your innovation journey.
- Processes and Procedures: the Onion and Garlic
The next step is to set some processes to capture ideas, and refine, assess, trial and implement them. These are like the onion and garlic: setting up the base flavour. It could be as simple as an excel spreadsheet shared centrally, with the potential to evolve into a more complex idea management platform. Examples of key processes we established for our innovation program include:
• Setting criteria for people to assess whether ideas are worth pursuing.
• Coaching people on how to use planning tools like the Lean Canvas.
• Setting guidelines to launch small scale trials of ideas and an evaluation framework to analyse success.
• Finally, a process for getting ideas operationalised at scale. This is the most difficult part of innovation —the last 10% will take 90% of your time. The most important rule you can set from the beginning, is that each project must have an identified business owner before it launches. Find someone who is engaged from the start and has the support to launch and manage the project.
- Leadership and Governance: The Head Chef
You leaders are like the head chef –dictating the flavour of your program and playing a key role in inspiring innovation, motivating your team and communicating success. Spotless is fortunate to have an executive responsible for innovation, which has instilled strong innovation leadership from the top and demonstrated the organisation’s investment and value in innovation.
We assist leaders to foster innovation within their teams by:
• Encouraging innovation to be a standard agenda item at management meetings; and
• Setting innovation KPIs. These don't have to be for projects that are fully implemented, but simply for trialling ideas and conducting 'safe-to-fail experiments'.
- People and Culture: The Stock
Just as stock is for soup, culture should make up the bulk of your innovation program and is key for success.
If you’re starting with a conservative culture where challenging the status quo is frowned upon, then you will need to launch innovation culture building initiatives to open people's minds to change. Show them that trying something new and learning from it is valued, and help people realise that ideas and execution can come from anywhere within the organisation. Simple innovation competitions with prizes are a good place to start as they are cheap and easy to set up. The critical piece here is making sure that the support for implementation of ideas is there; there’s nothing more demotivating than asking for people’s input and then nothing resulting from their contributions.
Some key culture initiatives that we run at Spotless include:
• 'Lunch and Learn' sessions
• Innovation goal setting for leaders and employees
• An innovation learning and development program
• Innovation Awards for outstanding contributions
In addition, we should also be looking at the attributes of the people we recruit (creative, independent thinkers, problem solvers, challenge seekers).
- Resources and Organisational Structure: The Noodles
The ideal approach here is to have a dedicated innovation manager/team, or at least make someone accountable for an innovation program as part of their role. This person or team is entwined in all the elements of innovation across all areas of the business, acting like the connected noodles in the soup. The core of this function is to foster innovation through the business by giving colleagues the tools, skills and empowerment to innovate. For us, our team is also the central point for exploring emerging trends and facilitating networking across the business, as well as with the outside innovation ecosystem. This is important for big organisations like Spotless, where divisions are prone to silo syndrome and seldom communicate or collaborate with each other. To combat this, we established an Innovation Forum and Seed Fund where representatives from each business division meet each month to share the innovation activity in their area and agree on which ideas (submitted on the idea portal) will receive ‘seed funding’ for trialling.
Generally, a lack of cash flow and time are the biggest barriers to people trying new ideas; so a seed fund is a great way to empower people to innovate. I should note that seed funding can be money, time or support or all three.
- Innovation Ecosystem: The Seasoning
Looking outside the four walls of your organisation is the final seasoning to make your innovation soup burst with flavour. The innovation ecosystem refers to everything else happening in the world – start-ups, emerging trends, new technology , university research and what other businesses are doing (including competitors and customers). Partnering with start-ups brings so many benefits to corporates as it allows them to move quicker in bringing new solutions to market. Even better, getting involved with a start-up accelerator (like Spotless is with Startupbootcamp) gives corporates the ability to infuse start-up mentality into the way they work and actively engage with start-ups’ product-market fit to shape their solutions.
- Seek constant feedback: Check-in with your diners
An annual survey of key stakeholders and leaders across the company is an effective way to get a pulse check on the success of your innovation efforts (the balance of ingredients). At Spotless we conducted a survey with leaders and employees at the beginning of our innovation program, and then again one year later to check in on progress. We were pleased to find a 40% improvement in participants’ perception of our innovation program, with our most improved area being our innovation culture initiatives. 82% agreed that they are effective at improving the innovation culture (up from 18% in 2016). We’ve achieved this largely through implementing initiatives like those I mentioned above, driving passion and focus around our strategic areas and developing an employee and customer base that is super keen to engage!
Currently, we are 18 months into our innovation journey and even though our innovation soup is tasting pretty good, we are still playing with the balance of flavours to get it just right. We’ve also added some great ingredients from outside our organisation, which has been critical in contributing to new thinking and the ‘speed to market’ to commercialise new ideas. But just like perfecting a recipe, there are always tweaks that can be made for improvements. Starting a new innovation program is no easy feat and results take 6-12 months to show; however, with persistence and determination, a small team of people can influence the overall culture and brand of an organisation (even one with 36,000 people!). Now, bring on dessert!