10 Rules of Thumb

10 Rules of Thumb for I.N.N.O.V.A.T.I.O.N. in Your Company

10 Rules of Thumb for I.N.N.O.V.A.T.I.O.N. in Your Company

Anne Orban

Originally published: 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 1, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 1)
Read time: 8 minutes

Accepting the innovation challenge can feel like a leap of faith. Practitioners whose careers have been deeply involved in innovation provide personal insights from their experiences on these rules of thumb developed as an acrostic using the letters of the word I.N.N.O.V.A.T.I.O.N.


INITIATE innovation from senior management

Senior management has two key roles in creating the structure for innovation. They must communicate belief that innovation is integral to the strategic direction of the company and develop a business model to take the company there. In this way, senior management provides a platform for the in-novation culture.

Tom Fehsenfeld, president of Crystal Flash Energy, is the third generation leader of the company founded by his grandfather in Grand Rapids, Mich. Crystal Flash Energy, a fuels distribution company, delivers fuels to commercial and residential customers, and it also had a chain of gas stations. In 2001, Crystal Flash Energy decided to exit the gas station business. The company continued with trucking as its core business. Fehsenfeld said:

It’s the job of senior managers to raise awareness of the need for change [innovation] and create a desire for change, but then you must make everyone in the company a participant, not a spectator. That’s a commodity-type service. Everyone in the core business was busy keeping that going, so in 2001, I hired individuals new to the company into a department of five people to focus on the future. They were charged to find compatible but different kinds of products and services to grow our business. This small team was like an anti-body. What we got was three years of misunderstandings—bad feelings and seriously disgruntled employees in our core business. What I finally figured out was that we needed buy-in from our employees to reinvent the future of the company. There are no shortcuts.

The innovation team should go out into the world with ‘fresh eyes’ and conduct a range of research activities throughout the new product development process—observing, listening and talking with consumers to learn.

NOMINATE innovation teams aligned to strategy

Innovation teams work optimally when clearly aligned with strategy. Team composition is likely to change as team members rotate off and on depending on the phase or stage of the innovation process.

Greg Anderson has been in innovation throughout his career at 3M, a global company that shares technological, manufacturing, marketing and other resources across five business groups. Anderson is currently global technical director for the Skin and Wound Care division at 3M. His experience includes seeing breakthrough innovations that come when associative thinking is maximized through teamwork with inside and outside expertise. Anderson said:

Innovation teams need to be set up for success right from their inception by being clearly aligned and managed to either an exploitive or exploratory strategy. Both innovation strategies are essential and must be clearly differentiated in terms of expectations, resources, approaches, metrics and timelines. At 3M, exploitative teams have, for example, technology resources that are only one or two phone calls away. Exploratory team members go on the road to research universities and high-level technology events to connect with people and ideas outside 3M. Whether the team is exploitative or exploratory, people will cycle off and onto teams according to where the project is in the new product introduction process. Finding the right idea to work on is only one place where specific team member skill sets are required. When the big idea we align around is in a channel where 3M doesn’t have direct access, we have to involve team members to engage with customers in order to increase our knowledge in that space.

NEGOTIATE a charter for alignment of innovation team with corporate strategy and desired outcomes

The innovation team’s deliverables should be clarified in a team charter that describes the task, business opportunity, expected benefits, approach, metrics for success, dependencies, stakeholders, assumptions and risks. Getting signatures on the charter from the project champion, project leader and all team members is the final step for alignment, which is the purpose of the charter.

Julian Giggs is director of Product Development and Product Management at Viqua, a Trojan Technologies company. Headquartered in Canada, Viqua offers technology products for water treatment in homes and in light commercial applications in more than 100 countries.

Giggs subscribes to the discipline of a charter as the first important step so that projects can deliver on desired outcomes. She said:

We know if we don’t do a charter, there is a good chance we will miss the deliverables and outcomes we want. Sometimes, it is hard to get a project team to build a charter with appropriate rigor and discipline because they are eager and excited to get started on what they think is the real work. Building a charter requires us to think hard about what we want to achieve. We have learned that we need the charter to be very clear about the problem we want to solve, because otherwise, time and resources are wasted on work that does not directly contribute to addressing the problem. The more uncertain we are of potential solutions, the more we need to start with the charter. If we are not clear up front, the project experiences dissention, under-performance and failure.

Leadership needs to create a corporate bias for openness to ideas and to model that openness as a behavioral norm.

OPERATE in the outside world with fresh eyes

The innovation team should go out into the world with “fresh eyes” and conduct a range of research activities throughout the new product development process—observing, listening and talking with consumers to learn.

Doug LaPlante is chief innovation officer of New Pig Corporation, a former PDMA Outstanding Corporate Innovator awardee. New Pig is a privately owned company in Pennsylvania that offers PIG® brand products to help workplaces stay clean, safe and productive. LaPlante said New Pig is externally focused in all stages of product development. New Pig calls its real-world focus the “fast-feedback” process. LaPlante noted that, “All our end-user facing research and our fast-feedback processes require the rigor of having ‘fresh eyes,’ so that we reduce the risk of seeing only what we expect or want to see.”

At New Pig, the fast-feedback process starts in real-world discovery to identify unmet needs and is carried forward throughout validation, refinement, development of concepts, launch and post-launch review.

“Internal and external alignment comes from repeatedly checking with consumer panels and especially with early adopter customers, as soon as possible,” LaPlante said. “We use fast-feedback to quickly answer: Did we get the insight right?”

For the recent launch of a New Pig product, fast-feedback from early adopters indicated that not only did New Pig get the insight right but also that early adopters were unexpectedly pleased with the amount of industrial activity that the absorbent safety mat withstood.

“This led us to develop new marketing messaging sparked by customers’ experiences with the product that was tested, won out over other messaging we had developed pre-launch and remains the primary marketing message for that new product,” LaPlante said.

VIOLATE business-as-usual

Be innovative in how you design your culture for innovation. Allow all necessary-for-success functions to find ways to be more effective and to speed up new product development.

Robert Wolf is vice president of human resources for GlaxoSmithKline, a global healthcare company with pharmaceutical, vaccine and consumer health divisions. In consumer healthcare, GSK has a range of scientific innovations expressed in products for oral health, nutritionals and wellness. In the consumer healthcare area, Wolf has worked to violate business-as-usual resulting in considerable success for GSK.

“To violate business-as-usual, we asked ourselves, who talks to whom? Who needs information from whom? We put all the necessary functions and decision-makers together in an innovation hub,” Wolf said. “What we did was ensure that the right people bumped into each other all the time, and these increased connections helped speed the innovation process and elevate its ROI.”

Violating business-as-usual is an ongoing opportunity.

“Whenever we went off-site and did innovation workshops, one of the best practices was to have an artist offer two- dimensional ways to quickly visualize ideas,” Wolf said. “So, why not put an artist in the hub to work alongside scientists, marketing and packaging people.”

GSK created a new position called “artist-in-the-hub” to deliver quick graphic prototyping. “We found a candidate in our quality and compliance department and did a six-month trial of the artist-in-the-hub role and that was five years ago now.”

ACTIVATE openness to incite a culture for innovation

Leadership needs to create a corporate bias for openness to ideas and to model that openness as a behavioral norm.

“Not-invented-here, as a mental reflex, kills a lot of innovation,” said Matt Benson, advanced innovation manager for Faurecia xWorks. Its parent company, Faurecia, is one of the largest international automotive parts manufacturers, producing six types of car modules: seats, cockpits, doors, acoustic packages, front-end and exhaust. In 2012, Faurecia was one of three companies that won the PDMA’s Outstanding Corporate Innovator award. Benson said:

As an advanced innovation team, we are aggressive about seeking out the best inside experts on each topic. At the same time, we are not afraid to look for and reach out to external sources—universities, entre-preneurs and other large companies for inspiration and solutions. For example, we spend about half of our scouting budget engaging external experts and organizations that have technologies and experience relevant to our innovation priorities. We mine all ideas for opportunity with the result that successful products are often variations of previous ideas that initially produced marginal results.

Celebration is essential for team productivity, especially when negotiating the challenges of innovation. Leadership must recognize when milestones have been reached and celebrate that success.

TRAIN everyone in innovation process tools and techniques

Use innovation process tools and techniques to provide a common language for innova-tion. Be appropriately disciplined and rigorous about how tools and techniques are used to get the most out of them.

Mike Witt has been innovation project leader at Liberty Hardware, a Masco company that makes decorative hardware for the home. He noted that brainstorming has been getting a bad name recently, although there is no data to prove that it doesn’t work when applied with appropriate discipline and rigor:

“Brainstorming is a great approach to generate and capture a large volume of new ideas, but the challenge with some brainstorming sessions is that they only incorporate people who are close to the topic,” Witt said.

He recommends ensuring that a diverse group participates because “the naïve participant will very likely point out areas that you have been blind to, because you are too close to the topic.”

Witt also wants participants to be well prepared before jumping in and throwing out ideas.

“Preparation should at least include making sure each participant understands the problem(s) they are trying to solve. You can never have too many ideas captured during brainstorming. Brainstorming is not the time to evaluate the ideas. In fact, you should encourage team members to think of ideas that may seem a bit ‘out there.’ When you throw out crazy ideas, there may be a slightly closer-in version of the idea that develops into a robust solution. During brainstorming, as long as you are focused on the problems to be solved, there are no bad ideas. Make sure to save ideas generated from brainstorming sessions in an easily accessible database, because an idea may be a good idea but just not appropriate at that time.”

INVENT at the intersection of the customer needs, technology and trends

Develop a three-dimensional matrix that includes the customer connection, the technological trajectory and multiple perspectives on the future. Invent at these intersections.

Inventing at the intersection of customer needs, technology and trends is second nature to Linda Trevenen, director of Marketing Excellence & Market Intelligence for Home Healthcare Solutions at Philips Healthcare. She said:

Inventing at this intersection suggests that you don’t narrowly look at only one of these vectors but rather at all three at the same time. When embarking on a new market discovery, we always start with the macro trends that exist and then identify the forces that could possibly affect the business. We label these forces either short term or long term. The innovation team then thinks of the key headlines that would put innovation success at risk. This work is the starting point for developing future scenarios or perspectives to stimulate invention. Technology trajectories are identified through internal and external technology audits, identifying relevant expertise from inside and outside the company. They could include, for example, connection technology (mobile, social and lifestyle), process advancements and alternatives to existing technology for our industry. For the third component of the matrix, our teams consider customer needs collected along the value chain, using a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques, and synthesize them in terms of themes that represent problems worth solving that Philips can own. It is critical that customer issues are presented along a care continuum (before use, during use and after use) so that the complete experience is represented. All three key elements are brought together similar to a Venn diagram. Teams look at the connections among customer need themes, macro market future scenarios and technology trajectories along a timeline to determine what kinds of innovations have potential to solve customer issues in the short term and the long term.

ORGANIZE so new product concepts feel as if they are the next logical things to do

Communicate up, across and down. Find language to communicate that is understandable to all company audiences.

Steven Fahrenholtz is in the third decade of his career in the food industry, having started, as he admits with relish, as a statistics geek. Now, he is strategy and innovation director at General Mills, helping to lead the iSquad, an internal innovation discovery group. Fahrenholtz said with his own passion:

If you think it is difficult to come up with the right idea to work on, it is equally, if not more difficult to communicate and sustain passion for the idea, at the hand-off points, to all the decision-makers in all the stages of development and commercialization and at any point when the going gets tough. Unfortunately, concepts that deliver on a consumer need are necessary but not sufficient for internal adoption. Rather, we need to believe that our concepts will be viewed by our consumers like a gift from a personal friend that knows them well. We know that a concept has tested well. But when we believe in a concept, we can explain to others why the concept delights consumers using first-person, personal language. Once we have this deep empathetic belief about people and their problems, we can rally others to our new product vision. When the empathic story is found, it resides indelibly in memory because it touches the soul. Empathic stories empower people to get resources when resources are scarce, work with passion in the face of adversity to align in a world of fragmented priorities and to make everyone feel, without question, that they are working on the right thing.

NEVER forget recognition and celebration along the way and at the end

Celebration is essential for team productivity, especially when negotiating the challenges of innovation. Leadership must recognize when milestones have been reached and celebrate that success.

Jim Ash is a marketing manager responsible for new business development in com-mercial and residential markets at DuPont Building Innovations, part of the company that, for more than 200 years, has brought world-class science and engineering to the global marketplace through innovative products, materials and services.

Ash actively practices recognition and celebration—formal and casual, early and often—with his innovation teams.

“It’s easy to celebrate successes and, of course, milestones, but you’ve got to celebrate failures, too, in the interests of ensuring the ongoing, productive engagement of team members,” Ash said. “Recognition can be a simple thank you and high fives (or fist bumps). Formal recognition can be in front of the team, in front of managers and in front of the business. Formal recognition can be corporate excellence or innovation awards—whether in a small, privately held company or a large, public company.”

Ash counsels not to forget that innovation takes a family, literally. He suggests using gift certificates/cards for a “night-on-the-town” award with family members.

“Get creative by really knowing your team and personalizing the celebrations,” Ash said. “Acts of recognition that surprise individuals and teams also reward the giver—there is nothing like seeing the reaction of people when they weren’t expecting to have their efforts celebrated. And it doesn’t need to cost a lot of money—or any money—to recognize progress in moving problem-solving forward in the tough slog of innovation.”

About the Author

Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP, is the director of Discovery and Innovation at Innovation Focus Inc. She is committed to helping clients innovate all along the value chain. At Innovation Focus, she combines her experience in qualitative research, process design and facilitation to help clients grow through new product and service development.

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