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Managing innovation on a shoestring budget

When I was doing value engineering workshops and other idea generation exercises for the projects of Fluor Daniel in the Netherlands, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I am sure it feels the same way for many innovation managers, till reality hits. While there are plenty of opportunities, you have no budget, resources, or people to make anything happen. How do you manage innovation on a shoestring budget?

Plenty of ideas – but no results

My title was “performance consultant”. My task was to facilitate and foster innovation activities on the projects we executed, so that our clients could reap the benefits in terms of value, safety, cost savings, etc.. In spite of the many great ideas – lauded by project managers and clients alike – not a single idea was brought to practice during the year I held this function. When I asked why these project managers did not act upon any of these great ideas, the answer was always the same “Floor, next time – on the next project, we will implement this”.

It drove me nuts! It was like looking at all the delicious and tantalizing candy above, but not being able to enjoy a single piece of it.

Not the problems described in management books

I read many innovation books to figure out what the problem was, but to no avail. These management books talked about how to engage and collaborate with clients and suppliers, how to manage a project, etc.. None of this seemed to be an issue at Fluor, where our clients and suppliers worked with us in the same building. Together, billion-dollar chemical installations were planned, built, and delivered on the day the contract specified.

I left Fluor and went to the Rotterdam School of Management to pursue a Ph.D. on the topic. I wanted to better understand why it was so difficult for an organization like Fluor to bring innovative ideas to practice.

Service innovation

Now, many years, and lots of research and experience later, I have built the foundations to show how different service innovation actually is.

Take for instance the innovation function. All innovation managers have the same main objective – accelerate the rate of innovation in the organization. Doing so requires managing three main functions – connect, support, and educate the project teams that come through.

However, in a service organization, the innovation manager is often a single person – or a small team of 2-3 people – to support this task for an organization as large as 1000-6000 employees.

To make matters worse, this person has to manage innovation on a shoestring budget with no funding support for any innovation project. Typically, the business units are paying for the development efforts. Which means that as an innovation manager your task is to facilitate these projects to the best of your abilities, without much leverage.

Managing innovation on a shoestring budget

Below a few things that you can do on a shoestring budget.

Without budget or power over the innovation teams, there is still a lot you can do. If you help teams save time and money and make them successful, they will become your fans, and listen and follow your advice.

Connect

Connecting people and bringing them together will get you started as an innovation manager. Whether you have a physical location or not, that does not really matter.

The goal is to bring like-minded people together. And provide them the opportunity to learn, get inspired and get connected. That does not need to cost much, especially not if these gatherings are brown bag lunches or walks in the park. Get creative!

As one of our clients said, I create “orchestrated serendipity”.

However, just bringing people together will soon wane interest, when the connections have been established and the novelty of meeting new people is gone. Why would someone keep coming and participate in your events?

Support

As an innovation manager in a service organization – and without a budget to support your project- you have to make sure you showcase the projects you are facilitating. Your teams must pitch in front of decision makers, whether they are management, investors, or clients. They can help these innovation projects move forward.

An innovation lab in DC does this very well. They have created a very attractive innovation space, where their management loves to meet and bring in clients. The teams that work in this co-creation space also benefit, just already from the foot traffic and occasional conversations at the coffee bar. What is more, it is really easy for all involved parties to hold a show and tell at the end of the day, as all parties are already there.

For their management, it is interesting to visit the lab and hold meetings there, not in the least because of the inspiring environment. It also enables them to show their clients all that is possible and coming. So for them, it is a location where they love to meet.

Having a location

Decision makers have money. As such, it is generally not to difficult to get a small budget to create a place where you can showcase innovation projects. To be clear, building a new space like in the example above is very expensive. That is certainly not what I mean here.

Make use of what is available. Be creative and perhaps a bit obnoxious. The cafeteria or main hallway are excellent places to settle your teams. Or the boardroom! Visibility is what matters.

Being given the opportunity to formally and informally connect with decision makers is huge. That will enable these innovation teams to hear first hand what they need to do, to get that next ‘yes’ and move their project forward.

If decision makers see what you do and the results your teams deliver, while you are awfully in the way of everyone – trust me, they will find you a better place!

However, showcasing also only lasts that long. Without seeing the results of the projects and teams that have been showcased, these decision makers will not return. Instead, they may abandon you to the basement. Not the place you want to be.

So, besides bringing together people and showcasing projects, you have to show results. You will have to demonstrate that due to your efforts these projects are successful.

Training

Training and coaching teams are probably the most labor-intensive and costly aspect of innovation operations in a service organization. Every innovator and project team will need to learn how to innovate.

If you have to manage with a shoe-string budget, see whether you can send your teams to free programs. Most universities run innovation and entrepreneurship programs sponsored by the government. For instance here in Virginia, you have the ICAP program sponsored by the SBDC.

Workshops like these, that teach teams more about customer discovery, design thinking etc. will be excellent to get your teams on their path to success.

At the same time, they give you the room to focus on the later stages, where teams need individualized mentoring to help them navigate challenging organizational roadblocks in order to be successful.

Sustainable

With the tips managing innovation on a shoestring budget is possible.

However, without giving serious thought to the three functions – connecting, supporting, and training – your efforts will not be sustainable. Without one of these three elements, you won’t be able to achieve your main task – help your organization become more innovative.

While the reverse is also true. If you can show what you can achieve on a shoestring budget in terms of innovation and growth, your budget will steadily grow. We have seen that happen many times with our clients.