5 Ways to Become a More Innovative Team
You know how the game of solitaire sometimes leaves you stuck, and then you reshuffle the deck and everything starts to flow? Your business is like that too. And thanks to the churning, dynamic nature of the times in which we live, your “deck” is getting reshuffled almost every day in the form of new markets to serve and new technologies to exploit. So if you’ve tried to innovate in the past but came up short, don’t give up—the next card you play may be the one that unlocks unimaginable success. And to help you play your “cards” more systematically, here are 5 things you can do to become a more innovative team.
#1 - Pick a Zone
As illustrated in Figure 1 below, there are four broad zones of innovation opportunity for any organization. To focus your team’s creative efforts, it’s helpful to determine which one of these zones is your current highest priority.
If you’re an early stage company, your top priority is probably Zone 1 – your core business operations. Making every aspect of your young company more efficient, effective, and scalable can pay huge dividends and is often a prerequisite for getting solidly on your feet.
If you’ve gotten your core business working, it’s probably time to expand into Zones 2 or 3 by developing new solutions for your current customers and/or taking your existing products and services into new market niches.
If your industry is in decline, or you just have the moxie to swing for the fences, then it’s time to explore Zone 4 – entirely new solutions for entirely new markets.
#2 - Define Your Resources
As you and your team begin to engage your zone of innovation opportunity, it’s important to take stock of your resources. Take a minute to answer the following questions in writing before you begin:
- Money - What's the maximum amount of money we could invest if the right idea came along?
- Time - What’s the maximum amount of time any one person or team could invest in the development of an innovation?
- Expertise – What is our organization’s current level of expertise when it comes to identifying and executing on innovation opportunities? Has anyone on the team read books about the topic and/or been part of a successful startup?
- Training – How can we help members of our team develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, even if that’s just an informal book club?
- Coaching & Mentoring – Who could we reach out to for guidance and support as we navigate the risky path of innovation?
Note that your answers to the resource questions may challenge your original ideas about your ideal innovation zone. If you have limited money, time, and expertise, you may need to start in Zone 1 and save the more ambitious challenges of Zones 2, 3, and 4 for a time in the future when your innovation capacity is more fully developed.
#3 - Develop Your Innovation Thesis
Regardless of which zone of innovation opportunity you decide to explore, it will be helpful to you and your team if you can develop a clear point of view—i.e. a thesis—about what it will take to succeed within that zone.
Some of the key questions an innovation thesis should try to answer include:
- Target Customers – I.e. which group of customers (or employees) do we believe have the greatest needs?
- Target “Jobs” – It’s extremely valuable to define not only the target customers/users you are trying to help but also the specific “jobs” you are trying to help them with.
- Target Technologies – Which tools and techniques do we think have the greatest chances of success?
- Target Business Models – Which business models (e.g. subscriptions vs. fee for service) do we believe are best aligned with our company’s long-term strategic opportunity?
- Target Innovation Teams – What types of innovators are a good fit for the opportunity?
For example, let’s say that you operate a digital marketing agency and are focused on innovating within Zone 1 – the core of your business. Your innovation thesis might read like this:
SAMPLE INNOVATION THESIS
We are seeking innovation opportunities that will dramatically improve the efficiency, efficacy, and scalability of our core business operations. Though we are open to all ideas, here’s our current best thinking on the ideas that are likely to succeed:
- Innovations That Help Project Managers Upsell – Our project managers often have stronger relationships with our customers than anyone else in the firm, but sales is not their passion. As a result, we are currently only seeing about 5% of our revenue coming from upsales.
- Innovations that Leverage “Core” Platforms – We have made a big investment in core platforms such as Google, Jira, and Figma. Innovations that leverage this prior investment will be given priority.
- Innovations That Can Be Executed by Intrapreneurs – Our Executive Team is swamped and we can’t afford to hire consultants. We need innovation opportunities that can be exploited by entrepreneurial members of our team with limited executive or external support.
#4 - Define Your Innovation Process
Innovation is like scaling a mountain. When you find a good idea, you’ve made it to base camp. To get to the summit, however, means turning that idea into a durable and growing part of people’s everyday lives. It’s difficult. It’s financially risky. And it’s just plain foolish to attempt it without a clearly defined roadmap to guide you through the journey.
If you know enough about innovation to define your own process, do that. If you don’t, then reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will share some free resources to help you find an affordable solution. Whether you do-it-yourself or get help from a third-party, don’t start your journey without an end-to-end map of how you will succeed.
#5 - Track and Report Innovation KPIs
Steps 1–4 will provide your team with an actionable innovation plan, but to execute on that plan, you’ll need KPIs. You can get as fancy as you want with this, but here are the basic data points you need to track:
- What is the name of the innovation project?
- What is the current status of the innovation project? (e.g. Active, Suspended, Abandoned, Completed)
- Who is the innovation project lead?
- Which zone of innovation opportunity does it address?
- Which stage of your innovation process is it currently in?
- When did the innovation project begin?
- When did the innovation project end?
If you track this data and integrate it into all of your standard management meetings and reports, it will alert you to opportunities for improvement and guide your ongoing efforts to manage innovation more effectively.
We are living in an age of unprecedented innovation opportunity. Driven by tectonic shifts in technology, demographics, climate, and politics, the global economy is being disrupted and reconfigured on a scale that may be unrivaled in the history of the world. For those organizations that are unable or unwilling to adapt, it’s a time of peril. But for innovative firms, it’s a time of promise as each jolt to the system reveals new markets to be served and technologies to be harnessed. As a leader, it’s your job to help your team make the most of this remarkable opportunity. The five steps described above are a great way to get started.