The four pillars of a successful corporate innovation program

Dennis Chernov, Jeff Highley, Renee Rendon, Justin Wood

icons representing education, ideas, achievement, and advocacy


Innovation programs are a great way to accelerate change, increase visibility into new opportunities and engage the workforce. We recently wrote an article on what makes a successful innovation program, advising enterprises how to harness innovation to be better every day, enhance agility and stave off the risk of being disrupted themselves.

In this article, we explore our own innovation program and some lessons learned since implementing this program (since we’re always looking to improve).  

The structure of our innovation program can be broken down into four key areas:


#1: Education

Education involves shaping relevant training as well as getting the word out promoting your innovation program and educating teams about it.

You’ll want to train employees in how to think innovatively and continually innovate. They need to realize that innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be the next iPhone. Small process improvements identified from their unique viewpoint within the organization can have a tremendous impact. To help employees make this shift in thinking and hone their innovation skills, we collaborated with Rackspace University to create an innovation-related learning path — training employees to continually look for problems in their day-to-day workflows and look for ways to improve how we operate.

In terms of getting the word out, it's good to catch people when they've just joined the company and are most hungry to learn about the company’s programs. So, if you have a company onboarding program, book a speaking slot so you can get new hires thinking about innovation straight away.

You can also gain exposure in big company meetings. Try to get someone from leadership to talk about the innovation program and related training during a departmental town hall, for example. This is a powerful way to create awareness.


#2: Idea intake

There needs to be a method for collecting ideas and tools that enables pitches to be submitted and tracked. At Rackspace Technology, we use a public message board on the company intranet where submissions are immediately visible to the whole company. The board also features voting and commenting capability to allow ideas to be up voted and built upon by others. While the voting function doesn’t guarantee an idea’s selection for further development, it does provide useful insight for leadership into what’s important to staff members at any given moment.

We've recently changed the way we market this program, so that we're receiving submissions for one month each quarter, instead of doing a continuous cycle. This allows time to drive approved submissions through the pipeline.

In terms of tools for intake, the most effective one is the most familiar to the organization. There's no one single best innovation program tool for everyone. It’s all about choosing something that’s convenient and comfortable for your employees.

Since Rackspace Technology uses JIRA extensively on the technical side, and the app is relatively easy and intuitive to use, it was the tool of choice for our organization. It allows all users to log in and see the process of each submission. In this way, the process can be transparent to everyone across the organization.


#3: Recognition

Recognition is about acknowledging that somebody has made a contribution and thanking them. It's about closing the feedback loop and giving them a pat on the back, such as with public recognition or a monetary reward. At Rackspace Technology, we use a tool called Spotlight from Achievers to recognize our employees for good work. Posts in Spotlight can be tagged to give exposure to direct managers and senior leadership as well as be enhanced with points that can be used to buy real gifts in the Spotlight store.

We have also started working on an employee Innovation of the Year award to give recognition to the employee who has submitted the best idea each year.


#4: Advocacy

Advocacy involves gathering ideas and driving communication that can turn it into something real. This is done by getting both leadership backing and ownership from the team that executes on the advocacy initiative.

For advocacy, our core team of program managers produces a shortlist of submitted ideas based on their alignment with our leadership team’s direction. Their role is to work with innovators to ensure the right people see their ideas so that a call can be made on whether it’s something to consider bringing into the organization.


Principles for success and potential program killers

In our experience, executive support, transparency, communication and velocity are essential drivers of success that, if neglected, can evolve into potential program killers. While we’re looking to harness bottom-up inspiration and energy with our innovation program, contributors must have confidence that leadership is engaged with and supportive of the program.

The transparency of our public board and voting system is crucial to building trust in the program. Every idea is responded to by someone from the program’s volunteer team. There is just as much emphasis on communicating why ideas are not selected as there is on celebrating those that have been successful. Without this openness, it’s hard to garner widespread engagement. As a result, programs risk becoming closed shops with a small group of voices driving most of the conversation.

Other obstacles to a company-wide innovation program’s success include slow progress and red tape. The advocacy approach is our way to accelerate routing of ideas to the people who are able to act on them. At the same time, it ensures the presence of an experienced hand to bring idea suggesters along on the journey. This provides individuals with valuable experience and networking opportunities beyond their daily duties and contacts.


Considerations for launching your enterprise innovation program

What works for your organization will be different than what works for ours, and different from others in your industry. But, without exception, an innovation program needs strong and visible executive ownership to take flight and remain sustainable.

Where leadership of the program resides depends on the outcomes you’re looking to achieve. For example, if you’re looking to drive efficiencies and outcomes for the business, then ownership within the operations group makes sense. Or, if you want to be more customer focused, then it makes sense to run the program through your product organization.

Early on, we spoke with staff far and wide to see what they would expect from an innovation program. This helped us discover our most passionate people when it comes to improving the company, and set the tone for our emphasis on transparency. Since then, we’ve enjoyed success leveraging the company’s internal communications channels for publicity, and we continue to benefit from simply talking to our fellow employees.


Some takeaways

The final word must go to a key tenet of popular innovation theories: Start small, fail fast — and don’t wait for perfect. We would wholeheartedly agree with this approach and have found that rather than spend time going back and forth on how we think a program process should work, it’s better to get it launched in a controlled way and see how it goes. If you have the right intentions and are focused on the right goals — or at least in the right ballpark — you will get there. To reduce the risk associated with failures, we recommend a soft launch of your innovation program before steadily growing the program’s scope as you learn what’s working and what’s not. Above all, enjoy the process.


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