ClinicianEngineerLawyerManaging for organizingNewsProfessional

Guidance and recognition for innovation initiatives

To provide guidance and recognition for innovation initiatives, you need to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand there is the need for sometimes competing interests of individuals versus team recognition. You need both. On the other hand, you need a healthy mixture of unguided creativity and control. In which case neither is good. Boundless creativity is not getting you anywhere, neither is micromanaging. How to strike a balance?

For an overview, I put the need for guidance and recognition in a two by two matrix, see below.

Individual versus teamwork

Let’s start with the recognition of individual versus teamwork.

Individual recognition

Very few, if any, innovation efforts can be accomplished by an individual. Yet, you need an innovation champion to do the heavy lifting especially at the start of a project. It takes an innovation champion to get a new service initiative started. These champions want recognition. Personal recognition and appreciation, for their ideas, input, and creativity.


“It felt so good, when we were in a meeting and everyone was in awe because of the solution I proposed. While I was relatively new to the company, I was the first to see that there was some logic in the data we had collected. With a simple formula, we could do a much better job at targeting the most promising potential clients. Unfortunately, it went quickly downwards from there. I took so much pride in my work, that I did not want to share it with anyone…. In the end, I failed to pull the project off. I don’t want to discuss further details, but the result is clear. I no longer work for the company.” [Amy – not her real name]

As the story above illustrates, a thank you and recognition of the individual was in place. 

At the same time you have to encourage and enforce teamwork. Very few tasks nowadays can be accomplished by an individual. Let alone pulling off an innovation project. So, in the case above, it should have been made very clear to Amy, that without building a team first she will not be allowed to move ahead.

Make having a team a must

I hear your objections – “Amy may not be able to build a team” and “why kill the initiative for that reason?”. Let me clarify both.

Why force Amy to make a team and otherwise stop her initiative? Because, we all know and can predict that she won’t succeed without a team. It is too much work and the perspective of one young inexperienced individual are just not sufficient to make any innovation project succeed.

The discovery of the formula was just the beginning. To make it applicable and deliver results for the company, this formula would have to be put to work for the company’s sales force. The latter was absolutely beyond Amy’s comprehension and capabilities at the time. You could have taken Amy off the project. However, that in my experience rarely saves the project either. As without a champion, who has a vested interest in seeing the idea come through, innovation projects are just not going to be successful.

And provide adequate training support

Keeping Amy on board begs the other question. “What if she is not able to build a team”. That can very well be true. However, you now offer her a great challenge to prove what she can and is capable of. It also would make her so much more valuable to the company, as building a team is an essential skill for the future leaders of the company. So, help her! Teach her how to form and build a team and give Amy the opportunity to prove her worth!

Finding a balance between guidance that is either too unguided or too controlled

Let’s now focus on the other dimension of the graph. How much freedom should be given to someone like Amy, to pull her project off?

When I discuss our approach with directors and COOs they often feel very uncomfortable with giving their employees freedom in their innovation efforts. They are afraid all the initiatives and suggestions of Amy and the likes, lead to nowhere. Even worse, they fear these initiatives take away time and attention from the goal and targets to company needs to make to stay at bay. So, what guidance can be given to people like Amy?

Providing guidance

Above, I suggested to help guide Amy by putting in place the requirement to build a team first, before she can proceed with her idea. In practice, this guideline has proven to be a very effective and efficient hurdle when it comes to project selectivity.

Another common guideline is to only approve suggestions and initiatives when they are aligned with the strategic goals.

However, rigid annual goals can become true killers when it comes to innovation.


When working for an innovation institute, I had to state my annual goals and my annual bonus was tied to these goals. My colleague, who had worked there much longer, had become very skilled in stating her annual goals. She made sure that her stretch goals were within reach and worked hard throughout the year to achieve them. As a result, she obtained the maximum bonus each year. In the meantime, I struggled tremendously with my goals. First, the sky was the limit when I would be setting my stretch goals. I hoped that by putting these in my goals, I would be able to act on some of my more ambitious plans. Second, during the year, things changed. This was a young innovation institute after all. Since I cared more about making the institute succeed than about my own goals, I did whatever it took to make things work. That meant, dropping the less promising of my ambitiously-stated projects and going after a new more promising opportunity. Not in the least, because that was clearly the better path forward. The result? I got a pat on the back at the end of the year for acting upon and pulling off that great new opportunity. Yet I missed out on the maximum bonus, because I failed to reach my ambitious stretch goal – the project that turned out to be unpromising upon further investigation. I was thus punished for killing a project for the right reasons. That is, recognizing that one of my projects turned out to be unpromising and making sure that that time and effort were better spent on another more fruitful initiative.

Clearly, the rigidity with which annual goals were set was frustrating.

Too controlled

While alignment with the organization’s strategic goals is important, alignment with the organization’s values is more important. Your innovative employee could be ahead of the pack and be on to the next big thing for your organization.

Thus, while innovation efforts should contribute to these annual goals, you should also have to have the wisdom and flexibility to deviate and take advantage of opportunities that come along.

You may not want the Amy-s (that is, the innovative and creative individuals in your organization) go off on every tangent they deem opportune. However, let’s think about the true costs of such adventures.

While most tangents don’t deliver any value to your company, just the ability to explore something – albeit brief, may be liberating and inspiring. Employees feel trusted, valued and appreciated when they are given the opportunity to explore – especially explore a tangent on an occasion. That probably also explains why 3M was very successful in the past.

However, you have to set some limits, as allowing Amy to do whatever she pleases, even when it is in her personal time, easily leads to a burn out. She will have too many things to go after and will fail to do anything successfully.

Providing guidance, by setting boundaries and controls fosters creativity. Just like in the case above, allowing Amy to explore for 2 weeks in her personal time, and then giving her the task to build a team to explore the topic further together. Such an approach sets useful limits and guidelines to what is expected. Such guidelines will make innovators more creative and more successful.

Similarly, you can provide guidance by allowing innovators to work on just one thing at a time.

Guidance for teams

Giving teams complete freedom is a bad idea. Lack of guidance creates a comfortable country club environment within a team. That is, an environment where no one is accountable and everyone can freewheel all the time.

Group thinking will make the members of the group applaud and encourage each other for whatever they are interested in doing. They will value each other for being members of the innovation team.

As a result, they are unlikely to achieve much, beyond having fun. From a company perspective, that is a truly a huge expense. Much worse than a few individuals exploring various options in a few hours of their personal time.

Teams should be asked to set clear milestones and deadlines. That makes it relatively easy to oversee their progress. First, because there typically are just a few of these teams. Second, oversight becomes a matter of ensuring each each team is diligent in their effort, serious about setting goals, and dedicated to achieve each milestone.

Square in the middle

So when the objective is to make your employees feel valued through innovation and new service development, you have to create a balance that stimulates individuals to take action and form teams, and guidance their action without too many controls.

As with many things, practice makes perfect. Don’t expect to get this delicate balance right overnight.

To start, I suggest creating a practice round or ground, with a few small innovation or new service development initiatives. Like Amy’s project.

Once a few of these initiatives have delivered results, a pattern will start to emerge. A pattern that will help you set guidelines as to the context, guidance, support, recognition, and controls teams should be given to help each team be successful in their innovation endeavors.

Organizing for Innovation

We have built Organizing for Innovation around the premise of assisting innovators like Amy. That is, professionals who have a lot of experience in their domain, but don’t have the managerial and business experience to pull off an innovation project. These Innovation champions receive the guidance and coaching they need to be successful.

We are also familiar with the needs of organizations that employ innovation champions like Amy. Professional service organizations receive the metrics and tools to engage and empower their “Amy-s”. Not overnight, but certainly over time, you can create an organization with a humming innovation engine that delivers results and makes employees feel valued.

If you are interested in learning more, join the LinkedIn Group “Innovators in the Professional services” and subscribe to our newsletter.