Jump-Starting the Innovation Engine

As US companies emerge from what is now acknowledged as the longest economic downturn of the post-World War II era, they are beginning to prioritize innovation as a primary engine for long-term growth.

Managing the innovation process from concept to implementation is a challenge for any large company. Understanding the core challenges and implementing appropriate measures are central to ensuring a streamlined innovation process that delivers a consistent competitive advantage in a global economy.

Below are some of the key ingredients to successful innovation in a large corporate environment:

  • Clear direction and vision by senior management – Management must clearly articulate strategic priorities and areas of innovation focus – at the corporate level, at the business unit level, and at the department level. This clarity can help channel innovation in the right direction.
  • An environment conducive to innovation – Freedom and flexibility for experimentation along with incentives for carrying products from ideation to commercialization provide a strong foundation for an innovative culture.
  • Clear definition of solution and value proposition – Innovation can take place on several fronts – product, process, or business model. Inventors must clearly articulate the problem statement, the target solution, and the potential value of the proposed solution. A systematic framework leveraging value realization methodology (e.g. Infosys’s VRM) in conjunction with business case analysis and lean principles can help articulate the value of the solution and the resulting benefits to the company.
  • Prioritization of target initiatives – The proposed ideas and initiatives should generally address the direction and strategic priorities set forth by senior management. Organizations are usually resource constrained. A ‘funnel’ process can help prioritize initiatives so they are well-funded and well-supported for success. However, we must not resort to excessive formal structures as micromanagement will only stifle innovation.
  • Buy-in/sponsorship from senior management – Disruptive ideas can be weighed down by resistance from individuals and middle managers who are impatient for tangible benefits and who would prefer the trodden path. Sponsorship from senior management is essential to preserve the freedom and flexibility of the innovating team to explore the full potential of the innovation.
  • A matrixed, multi-disciplinary team – Disruptive innovation usually begins at the fringes of disciplines. A multi-disciplinary team can bring together ideas from disparate disciplines to ‘break the mold’ and work around a new paradigm. An ability to put together small, highly-qualified cross-functional teams quickly in a matrixed environment that transcends organizational boundaries is vital to bringing innovative and disruptive ideas to rapid prototyping and field test. Further, team dynamics and involvement are critical to harmonious creativity.
  • Early customer integration – Involving a lead customer in early prototyping can help refine product features and quality and accelerate its evolution to mass production.
  • Ecosystem leverage Collaborating closely with key strategic ecosystem partners to leverage their assets during new product development can greatly reduce overall development costs, accelerate time-to-market, mitigate risks, provide access to new markets, and simplify the out-of-the-box customer experience. Continuous re-investment by ecosystem partners can help ensure new product longevity via a common platform strategy and a shared investment-risk-success model.
  • Clear assessment metrics – Performance metrics and milestones must be put in place that clearly define success criteria at a project level and hold the team accountable. Periodic check-point reviews ensure continuous progress and improvement by various milestones.
  • Rewards – Timely and visible recognition of inventors is integral in fueling the innovation engine. Rewards must be commensurate with impact/value to the organization. Managers are generally mired in execution challenges and pressured to deliver results over the short-term, and thus do not feel incentivized to sponsor innovation that has a long-term roadmap to fruition. It is therefore equally important to recognize the managers who ‘stick their neck out’ to sponsor innovative initiatives.

Innovation is an ongoing process that needs continuous refinement based on shifting market dynamics, technology progression, and ecosystem/value-chain evolution. Lean processes and a sound infrastructure that nurture the innovation process are fundamental to maintaining the growth engine in a competitive global economy.

Note: This article was originally published by the author at the Infosys Global Engineering Blog where you can find exciting new ideas on how you can improve your business via product innovation and engineering.

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