Article (6 minute read)

What Makes a Successful Enterprise Innovation Program?

Innovation programs are a great way to accelerate change, increase visibility into new opportunities and engage the workforce.

Jeff Highley / Rackspace Technology, Renee Rendon / Rackspace Technology, Dennis Chernov / Rackspace Technology

Disruption has become a new normal as technology adoption has accelerated. Driven by the proliferation of connected devices and cheaper access to high-powered computing via the cloud, the barriers to entry in almost every market have been dramatically lowered. Expectations for the pace of change have been transformed.

In response, many companies have taken steps to accelerate innovation by broadening innovation’s scope beyond product or R&D departments and instead encourage participation across the whole organization. The goal for many organizations is to harness innovation in order to be better every day, enhance agility and stave off the risk of being disrupted themselves.

Many companies, including us here at Rackspace Technology™, have created ecosystems for sourcing and nurturing innovation from across the organization. When successful, these innovation programs are powerful engines for uncovering opportunities in every corner of the business, outside of the traditional view of product or ops teams. They also boost bottom-up engagement by providing the opportunity to contribute to the company’s direction beyond one’s regular roles and responsibilities.

For those interested in building an innovation program of their own, this article is the first in a series exploring the key pillars and principles of our program, along with some insights into innovation killers — and how to avoid them.

But before we get too far into that, let’s start at the beginning.

Why would I even need a formal enterprise innovation program anyway?

Businesses often race to the end when answering this question, thinking — perfectly naturally — in terms of big-bang new ideas. But innovation programs don’t always have to be about discovering the next iPhone. Instead, most innovation programs prove to be excellent boosters of employee engagement and facilitators of better collaboration through the breakdown of silos. So much of innovation is about combining existing elements to create something new; bridging the divide between lines of business is a great way to drive the synthesis of current ideas into new solutions.

There are plenty of people with great ideas for improving products and processes across your company. But in many cases, employees have no idea where to take those ideas. You can tap into these employees as a resource by creating a program that accounts for the intake and funneling of ideas to the right people. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of the job title associated with it. And having access to the ideas of people close to the grassroots every day provides unique visibility into wasteful and inefficient processes.

As a function of professional development, innovation programs are pretty hard to beat. A well-functioning program affords opportunities to learn skills outside of current roles, including developing thoughts into pitches and advocating for them. These experiences increase an employee’s network and allows them to learn more about themselves, the company and its leadership structure.

The ultimate goal of an innovation program is to increase corporate and strategic agility by tapping into the collective genius of the company.

How well do enterprise innovation programs work?

There’s no universal standard for defining how well an innovation program is working, so success is often said to be hard to measure. And, yes, progress towards fostering a culture of innovation is difficult to capture. (Depending on your circumstances that may not be a point of success in any case.)

But we’d call out the “it’s hard to measure” crowd. Yes, it can be hard — but it’s not impossible and companies can make it a whole lot easier by establishing clear objectives.

For example, if the program’s intent is to drive engagement then you will need to assemble your current engagement KPIs, identify the metrics you expect the program to move and track performance against those. Alternatively, if your goal is product development, then you might tag that outcome’s important metrics and measure output against a base set of product offerings, not yet within the program’s current purview.

Ultimately, understanding your success with innovation programs depends on first identifying your intent behind the program and then identifying what to measure. Innovation programs are only ever successful if you know what you're trying to achieve, and measuring that success is a whole lot easier with the clear sense of purpose that that entails.

Must-haves for building an innovation program that lasts

Compared to any other program, there’s nothing unique about the principles on which an innovation program is built. If it is valuable and has a demonstrable purpose, it’ll run and run.

However, anecdotal evidence shows that innovation programs have a higher-than-usual failure rate. Ask around your company today and you’ll likely hear variations on a common refrain. People who have been there for years might say, “Oh yeah, we tried that once before.” Rookies might say ,“My last employer had one of those, but I don’t remember what happened to it.”

The details will vary company to company, but there are some universal foundations for innovation program success. These include executive buy-in combined with broad awareness throughout the organization; each is a prerequisite for getting off the ground and then driving long-term engagement. Trust comes from people knowing that leadership is invested in the program and its results, and motivation to engage comes from lifting the program’s profile and detailing its progress.

Transparency falls into the must-have category, too. Regular communication helps drive this, from company-wide updates demonstrating progress and inviting pitches, to emphasizing why ideas are not selected. Without this openness, it’s hard to garner widespread engagement, and programs risk becoming closed shops where a small group of voices drive most of the conversation.

Other common pitfalls for enterprise innovation programs

Without the above structure and organizational alignment, an innovation program will always be on a shaky foundation. When its leader or sponsor leaves or moves on, it will probably fizzle out. Long before then, it may fail to garner the necessary engagement to both fill the pipeline with pitches and find friendly faces to take on the promising ideas.

Ambiguities around the purpose of your program can be a drawback. Remember that a well-defined brief will drive well-formulated responses. In our experience, companies that have taken this route have tended to report a high proportion of pitches progressing all the way through the program. But beware, it can work the other way: if the brief is too narrow and implies some kind of rare or specialist knowledge, then not enough people will feel able to contribute.

Finally, to put your best foot forward it’s essential to know what you want to achieve from the program from the beginning, and to consistently monitor your progress. And that, actually, is part of the fun of launching an innovation program: it’s a process of trial, error and continuous learning — exactly like innovation itself.

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