12 Principles for Successful Innovation

SUCCESSFUL INNOVATION is based on ingenuity, engagement, creativity, delivery and sponsorship. When setting up your innovation function, what principles should you use and why?

Here are 12 innovation principles I find invaluable in client situations:

successful innovation
Photo credit: Innovation Drive by Christian Heilmann

1. Successful Innovation is ‘challenge led’ and linked to strategic goals

  • Make Sure that: Innovation is focused on solving specific business or technological challenges in the near to medium term and is guided by business and IT strategy.
  • Because: Unstructured or unguided innovation quickly loses focus, funding and business sponsorship.
  • Which means that: Business and technological challenges must be identified and prioritised. An innovation forum, steering group, special interest groups and innovation workshops should be used to develop ideas and possible solutions.
  • And in practice: Allow disruptive innovation to challenge, stretch and break established strategy. Innovation should be focused, but not overly constrained. Let innovation be the ‘personal trainer’ that keeps your strategy on its toes.

The Innovation Expedition: A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation

2. Successful Innovation is customer centric

  • Make Sure that: Innovation is focused on customer demands, problems, desires. The customer may be an internal stakeholder or department, a partner or supplier or consumer. Focus on their delight.
  • Because: Customer focus helps innovation retain a sharp commercial edge.
  • Which means that: Understanding customer segments, demographics, desires, requirements and frustrations is essential. Engage customers in innovation and encourage them to participate in generating ideas and creating new products and services.
  • And in practice: Set up focus groups, market testing, prototyping. Use competitions to engage end users. Understand your competitor’s customers and why they like and buy their products and services.

3. Successful Innovation is ‘unconstrained’

  • Make Sure that: Legal and regulatory constraints are respected. Treat other constraints as optional and effectively ‘self-imposed’.
  • Because: Innovation breathes the oxygen of freedom.
  • Which means that: Unnecessary process, policy and governance will stifle or derail innovation.
  • And in practice: Under-regulation in innovation is better than over-regulation.

4. Successful Innovation is open and democratised

    • Make Sure that: Joy’s Law (“not all the smart people work for you”) is respected.
    • Because: The power of innovation lies in collective experience, insight and intellect. Use the Crowd!
    • Which means that: No one should be excluded from the innovation process. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
    • And in practice: The crowd amplifies noise. Beware cognitive biases and domineering people. As the size of the crowd grows, think about segmenting problems and problem solvers.

    5. Successful Innovation has near, medium and long range focus

    • Make Sure that: Innovation is not skewed by either over focusing on short-term tactical challenges or long-term ‘blue sky’ thinking.
    • Because: Innovation is about delivering benefits in the short, medium and longer term. The balance is important to get right, to fulfil the innovation mandate and to ensure the longevity of the innovation function.
    • Which means that: It is wise to keep fairly tight commercial control on short term / near range innovation. Formalise your innovation funnel and implement processes and controls to enable you to manage an innovation portfolio with more strategic focus.
    • And in practice: Ensure that innovation challenges are framed in the short, medium and long term. Think about using scenario planning and war gaming to help frame some of the more challenging longer term thinking.

    Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Management of Innovation and Change)

    6. Successful Innovation is viewed through multiple lenses

    • Make Sure that: Innovation has the right representation across CEO, CIO, CTO and CFO agendas. Multiple stakeholder views will give you a richer and more complete understanding of challenges and opportunities.
    • Because: Without a Systems Thinking approach it is very easy to solve either the wrong problem or an incomplete problem. Innovation is improved by acting holistically and fully engaging stakeholder groups and perspectives.
    • Which means that: Hypothesis led problem solving is a useful technique to consider. Balance top-down business centric innovation with ‘bottom up’ technology centric innovation.
    • And in practice: Systems Thinking is good practise for innovators. Good innovation comes from a good understanding of the business, the business context, customers, suppliers, competitors, societal trends and technology. Explore innovation and its context across all salient dimensions.

    7. Successful Innovation is multi-modal

    • Make Sure that: Innovation focuses on the short, medium and long term. It also needs ‘two speeds’. Incremental innovation focuses on incremental improvements of existing products and services. Disruptive innovation is about ‘breaking the mould’. Balance both of these in a multi-modal innovation approach.
    • Because: Incremental innovation is the ‘heartbeat’ of your innovation function. This enables the delivery of regular innovation benefits. Disruptive innovation is harder to make work, but is essential to stretch your innovation ambitions.
    • Which means that: You need good incremental thinkers and good disruptive thinkers. Incremental thinking is “how do we do this better”, disruptive thinking is “why do we do this at all”.
    • And in practice: Disruptive thinking demonstrates ambition and a willingness to be bold. It can frighten ‘conservative business leaders’, so be cautious in terms of pushing ‘too far, too fast’. A solid track record in incremental innovation makes bolder proposals more credible.

    8. Successful Incremental Innovation uses Agile methods

    • Make Sure that: Agile principles are applied to incremental innovation.
    • Because: Agile is well suited to prototyping and delivering a Minimum Viable Product.
    • Which means that: You need to understand Agile and how to avoid its pitfalls.
    • And in practice: You need strong Agile product owners who can drive the prototype increments. A lack of vision, uncertainty or weak leadership will destroy an Agile method’s potential.

    Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process (Addison-Wesley Signature)

    9. Successful Innovation is IPR and funding flexible

    • Make Sure that: You have a well thought through IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) strategy and a Risk Reward model to incentivise innovation both within your organisation and across your supply chain.
    • Because: IPR retention is a thorny subject and easily kills collaboration and innovation. Commercial organisations will want to share in the profits of invention, so be realistic in your IPR demands and use a Risk / Reward model to drive co-funding.
    • Which means that: You need to know which Intellectual Property (IP) battles to fight and how to share IP with others. This demands a good IP strategy and a willingness to be flexible.
    • And in practice: Don’t dismiss the use of creative funding models such as Crowdfunding / Kickstarter.

    10. Successful Innovation is ‘model driven’

    • Make Sure that: You structure all of your innovation processes, policies, principles and supporting collateral into a simple, cogent  model.
    • Because: Models are very useful for explaining your innovation approach to others. They are also useful for finding gaps, providing context and aligning innovation roles and responsibilities. Use the model to structure your innovation workshops, forums, challenges, competitions etc.
    • Which means that: You should think like an ‘innovation architect’. Your innovation strategy may not be reachable in one step, so break up your target into a set of transitions / maturity steps.
    • And in practice: Aim high, be bold. Use innovation to stretch your ambitions. Deliver incremental benefit by breaking up your innovation journey into smaller more realistic and more manageable chunks.

    11. Successful Innovation is ‘data driven’

    • Make Sure that: You use analytics to help you quantify your starting point and demonstrate how innovation initiatives are delivering improvements. Link this to the transition steps mentioned in point 10.
    • Because: There is a qualitative aspect to innovation, but innovation needs to deliver tangible results. Let the data speak!
    • Which means that: Innovation can be focused on performance improvement. Understanding performance and how innovation ‘interventions’ are helping to make improvements is extremely valuable.
    • And in practice: You should think about how analytics fits with your innovation approach, what data you want to collect and analyse and what Key Point Indicators go into your ‘innovation scorecard’.

    12. Successful Innovation is introspective and recursive

    • Make Sure that: You apply innovation principles and techniques to all of your innovation processes.
    • Because: Innovation processes should be subject to continuous process improvement. Innovation applies to all of your working practices, including innovation itself.
    • Which means that: Set up periodic reviews to analyse how innovation is performing. Much of this can be done through actual business benefits, KPIs, reporting etc. but also look at qualitative and other ‘soft measures’ like collaboration and communication.
    • And in practice: Implement best practices for continuous process improvement.

    Further Reading on Innovation