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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 were plenty of opportunities, I had no budget, resources, or people to make anything happen. How do you manage innovation on a shoestring budget?

Plenty of ideas - but no results

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

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. Innovation managers have the objective to 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. That is the same for all innovation managers.

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 project. Typically, the business units will decide which projects to invest in, as they are paying for the development efforts. This 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 to manage innovation on a shoestring budget.

The trickiest thing is that without budget power, you don't have a lot of leverage over innovation teams. You have to create good-will to ensure teams report to you. From experience we know, that if you help teams save time and money and make them successful, they will become your fans, and listen and follow your advice.


Connecting people and bringing them together will get you started as an innovation manager. Whether you have a physical location like an innovation or incubator lab space 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 virtual meetings, 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?


As an innovation manager without a budget to support innovation projects, you must find opportunities to showcase the projects you are facilitating. Decision-makers have to be aware of all innovation activities that are ongoing. And your teams must pitch in front of decision-makers, whether they are management, investors, or clients. Because these teams need these "investors" to move their innovation projects 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

Even in strenuous times like during the pandemic, 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. A shared drive that is accessible to everyone in the organization. And in the office, the cafeteria or main hallway are excellent places to settle your teams. The boardroom will do too! 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 and coaching teams are probably the most labor-intensive and costly aspects 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 collaborate with the training department in the organization and have them sponsor innovation training programs.

Some universities run entrepreneurship programs sponsored by the government. For instance here in Virginia, George Mason University runs the ICAP program sponsored by the SBDC. The first phase of our T4 program is also free. Workshops like these will be excellent to get your teams on their path to success.

Beware that you don't spend too much of your time on these early-stage teams, as that is not where the return on investment is for your innovation program as a whole.  Use these external resources so you have the time to focus on the later stages, where teams need individualized mentoring to help them navigate challenging organizational roadblocks in order to be successful.


Managing innovation on a shoestring budget is possible, but not very sustainable. 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, see for example our ICTU case study. Your goal should be to show your worth.

To thrive, you need to support all three innovation management functions - connecting, supporting, and training. Without these three elements, you won't be able to achieve your main task, to help your organization become more innovative.

And if you need help, know that you are not alone. We gladly assist you in your efforts, we have various free resources, and a community of innovators that work in similar circumstances.




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