In your innovation portfolio, you need many early-stage teams. Yet, onboarding such teams can be dragging on your innovation resources if you don't have the ability to process these teams efficiently and effectively. Especially because most of these teams are destined to explore only and won't result in the new high-value offerings you need. The challenge is to identify those projects that have to potential to become new high-value service offerings.
First of you need many ideas, as innovation is a numbers game. The more projects you start with, the higher the chance that there are those unique high-potential successes among them. However, if you have to support all these teams, costs can run up quickly. Just because of the sheer volume, these early-stage projects can be consuming most of your innovation budget. While ideally, you want to preserve most of the resources of your innovation funds for your later-stage teams. As that is where investing significant resources makes the most sense.
Besides many, you also need teams that explore different areas and opportunities within the strategic goals of the organization. In most organizations that still covers a really broad scope for an innovation manager or committee to handle. How to tell that all these, often very complex and cutting-edge ideas are good or bad? Which project teams should get the funds to proceed to the next level?
In many service firms, due to the sheer breadth of scope, it is impossible for a selection committee to have sufficient domain expertise to select ideas based on merits only.
Nevertheless, somehow you need to vet these many early-stage ideas efficiently.
We have seen that teams themselves - who typically are driven by a subject matter expert - have the ability to validate their own ideas, if they know what to focus on. Their diligence and discipline in vetting will tell you something about their commitment to bring their idea to practice successfully.
However, to do so, these teams need training. For example, technical experts need to know what market aspects to validate, sales experts need to validate the technical benefits, and all teams need to validate whether their project is aligned with client demands and organizational goals.
Therefore, most companies organize quarterly training programs or bootcamps to put their early-stage teams through such training. Which works really well for the teams that participate for the first time, but can be seen as a time waster for innovators that participate a second or third time. They know the materials and would like to focus on applying it to their current project. They are not interested in being taught the basics again.
Set up for success
Research has shown that the work in the fuzzy-front-end - as this early stage is often referred to - pays off. By doing the legwork up front, you set teams up for success.
What is also clear, is that you need a team. A single person - no matter how passionate and driven - will not be able to bring an idea to practice.
A team of people is needed to do the work and to make sure all aspects are addressed. In general, innovators like to work on their solution. In the early stages, that is however rarely the most important issue to address. Instead, a team needs to work on validating and defining the problem. Knowing the problem will serve the team well later on in the process. A team can help an innovator to define the problem in an unbiased and holistic matter.
What you are looking to accomplish
Without any structure, we have seen early stage teams struggle for months, with outliers to 2 years, to get approval to proceed.
Where do the delays stem from?
- First the team itself. Creating a one-pager for your project that will be well-received by decision makers is challenging.
- Second, the decision-makers. Because the one-pager often provides insufficient information, a team is often asked to provide more and more detailed information.
- Third, the approach. In all these months the team is working on selling their idea to the decisionmakers, instead of focussing on validating and de-risking their project. In other words, during this period the information about the project becomes more and more detailed but that does not necessarily make the decision to invest less risky.
Instead, what would be a better way?
- Align the information needed to get approval with the de-risking efforts of the project. That way, the time and effort that is put in the early phase translates directly into reduced risks for the decision makers.
- Make sure the team knows what to focus on and how to do it. Guidance from an experienced trainer may be worth the investment, as such a trainer can save a team a lot of time. Time that can instead be spent on either the innovation project or their day job.
- Provide decision makers with better and more detailed information about each project. Since diligence, discipline, and dedication are good predictors for future success, adding such data to a proposal will make that decision makers have more, and more reliable, information.
A solution for onboarding early-stage teams effectively and efficiently would have to address the following:
An important reason to frame support for early-stage teams as a training program is that in most (professional) service organizations there is more budget available for training than for innovation.
By framing it as a training, you kill two birds with one stone. First, you build in commitment and support form the business units that need to support these projects from start to finish. They will foot the bill for the training of these early-stage teams. Second, you can tap into available funds, without depleting the innovation budget.
From a personal development perspective, it also makes sense to label it as training. As participating in an early-stage innovation initiative enables individuals to explore a new domain and thereby advance their hard and soft skills.
I have learned from experience that there is a huge difference between doing a training to learn versus doing a training to be able to execute a task. If you take a training to learn, you do it till you understand the concept. In most cases, doing it once will suffice.
However, to take and training to make something work, you will have to iterate through these concepts multiple times till you get it right. For instance, defining the target customer will take a few iterations.
Doing it once and getting a grade for the effort is not what innovation teams need. Instead, you are looking for task-based training that can help a team to iterate their way to success.
As mentioned above, innovation is a team sport. Thus the program needs to be team-based. Something you can take with your team, even if the team is dispersed across the globe.
Participating in an online program - and sticking to it - can be hard. Statistics tell that about 99% of participant drop out of online training programs (resource). While you want to be selective and would like your not so committed early-stage teams to drop out - you don't want them to quit for the wrong reasons.
An experienced trainer, that provides feedback and helps teams to prioritize what to focus on as a team, is therefore paramount to help early-stage teams keep momentum and stay on track. Innovating in a disciplined and diligent matter is hard!
The above approach has helped us to identify project teams that have to potential to become new high-value service offerings. Our case studies provide several examples of how we have accomplished that.