Innovation Process Design and Software Tool Enablement

Innovation Process Design and Software Tool Enablement

Innovation Process Design and Software Tool Enablement

Noel Sobelman

Originally published: 2015 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 1, 2015 • Vol 39 • No 1)
Read time: 6 minutes

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from companies working on innovation improvement is whether they should design improved innovation processes before implementing enterprise software tools, or start out implementing software tools that claim to have best practice innovation processes built in.

In my previous article, we discussed the financial, root cause, software system and user adoption considerations. Here are three more considerations to mind when planning your innovation improvement journey, in addition to some practical advice on system strategy and implementation.

Key Considerations

The following considerations are a continuation of the considerations outlined in the first installment of this article.

5. Stage of Maturity. All companies vary in their stage of innovation maturity. Early-stage companies may benefit by patterning their business process after those that are already defined and embedded in a software system. On the surface, this may seem like a “fast track” approach in order to bypass a long, drawn-out process improvement initiative and jump right to a software solution with leading practices built in. Those considering this path need to be prepared.

First, make sure your company’s executive team has agreed upon the basic architecture of your innovation process and function before the software implementation. In addition, be sure to drive buy-in and adoption of the pre-configured process workflows, templates and other tool features. Regardless of the amount of pre-configuration available, you will most likely need to tailor the software to the unique wants and needs of key stakeholders across functions and business units, and tailor the process design for your particular environment.

Driving stakeholder alignment is not easy. It often requires strong facilitation from someone who understands both leading practice processes and the inner workings of the software. This person will need to drive agreement every step of the way and on every element of the tool, even down to the look and feel of the user interface.

Most large companies that have been around for a while typically have some level of innovation process already in place, and they face a different set of challenges. Altering ingrained processes to match the out-of-the-box software may not be practical and can negatively impact adoption.

Some would argue that early-stage companies have less to gain from the benefits that enterprise software solutions provide. Early-stage companies are not as large. They also have less data to analyze, with fewer and less complex cross-functional communication linkages to manage. Often, they can get by just fine with Microsoft Office tools like Excel, PowerPoint and Word, in addition to document sharing solutions like SharePoint.

But at some point in its life cycle, a company will outgrow the capabilities of these ubiquitous tools. There is a point in which managing complex, data-heavy business processes on disconnected spreadsheets or manually routing Word documents becomes inefficient.

“We had a phase gate process in place for years and more recently started implementing improved, Excel-based portfolio management processes in a few business units. The early, excellent results we saw from those portfolio management efforts created pull for change,” says Cor Bosselaar, Kimberly-Clark’s director of global innovation capabilities and processes.

“Once it became clear that the ‘Excel hell’ did not work, as people found out the hard way, we gained some traction to look at an enterprise tool. At the same time, we also started our journey to become a global company, and it became clear that the ‘hell’ would only get worse if we continued with Excel,” Bosselaar explains.

6. What Is the Scope of Your Initiative? Software tools range from narrowly focused point solutions, designed to enable one element
of your innovation methodology (e.g., requirements management, idea management, document management), to broad, enterprise-wide tools with modules that cover
a wide spectrum of innovation capability. Some PLM solutions have functionality that supports everything from ideation through product launch, including idea management, portfolio management, resource management, requirements management, document management, configuration management, supplier collaboration, parts management, CAD data management and more.

When your initiative scope is broad, waiting to mature all or even most of your individual process elements before enabling them with a broad-based software solution will only delay time to value. You also risk initiative fatigue when using a “boil the ocean” approach.

An incremental approach to enabling process with software tools allows you to mature your process first, enable the process element with a properly scoped solution, demonstrate measurable results and demonstrate a “win” before moving on to the next critical process element. Done well, the immediate business improvement payback can help justify or even pay for the next step in your transformation journey. Even the most conservative CFO will find it hard to turn down a “self-funding” initiative.

When using an incremental approach to build your innovation capabilities, though, be careful to avoid ending up with multiple, disconnected point software solutions. There is tremendous value in broad-based enterprise solutions that integrate interdependent innovation elements. Apply the integration value test every step
of the way and keep an eye on longer-term system architecture objectives as you make decisions on point solution versus broad-based enterprise software tools.

7. Degrees of Freedom. Starting with process improvement allows more creativity around the best resolutions for innovation issues. After all, tool implementation is simply an effort to automate some agreed upon process. If the tool’s capability dictates the process, you are not necessarily optimizing your solution from a value creation perspective. The limitations of the tool should not limit process design thinking.

Tool limitations can be overcome, but this can be a long, drawn out and expensive endeavor. It’s easier and less expensive to change a process than it is to change a tool. A better way to hedge the risk of heavy tool modification is to have someone familiar with the tool and its capabilities participate in the initial process design. However, doing so will provide limited value if you haven’t selected the tool in advance of the process design session.

Is it possible to effectively select the tool without the process determined? One way to resolve this “chicken and egg” dilemma is to have a good upfront awareness of the kinds of tools and tool capabilities available while developing your process. Design the process architecture with business objectives in mind, while at the same time optimizing detailed activities with specific tool capabilities in mind.

Getting Started

Innovation process design, pilot and rollout initiatives can take months to see initial benefits and years to see step-function performance improvement and to become institutionalized as world class. You will need to decide at what point along your overall improvement journey (timing), how much (scope) and which processes (highest impact) to enable with software tools as you travel down the innovation improvement path.

No matter which approach you decide on, follow these leading practices for a successful software tool implementation:

  • Leverage out-of-the-box functionality with minimal configuration when possible and avoid software customization.
  • Involve tool and process experts early on in the process design. Otherwise, there is a high risk for process rework or extensive tool customization.
  • Design with the “end in mind” and map out your process tool journey. Understand the overall goals and business objectives.
  • Pilot the new tool functionality first and adjust your next steps as you learn along the way.
  • Capture baseline metrics to measure and communicate the success of your implementation.
  • Use a phased approach to allow for real-time feedback on process, tool design and demonstrated results that create pull for change.
  • Recognize this is a journey. Get started and get better. Layer in advanced capabilities over time.

To achieve real results from your initiative, look past software system components and take a more strategic approach. Being strategic does not mean attempting to “boil the ocean” or driving the best new tool that has been mandated from above. Marry a comprehensive knowledge of your desired future state process, people and culture to ensure that business objectives are met and the software is adopted as an enabler for improved business performance.

Create an innovation improvement roadmap that guides both process and tool pathways toward your desired future state. But don’t stop there. Identify critical milestones where software can enable the next level of performance. The most successful companies define a transformation vision and take an incremental approach to implementing software as an enabler for their journey with an unrelenting focus on business results.

About the Author

Noel Sobelman leads Kalypso’s New Product Development practice. Sobelman has worked extensively in the areas of innovation strategy, product development, portfolio management, product commercialization and the software systems that enable innovation. His industry background includes experience with high technology, life sciences, consumer packaged goods, and industrial and renewable energy companies.

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