Innovation Journey Series Month 3 - Month 6: Participation

This is part of a 4 part series called The Innovation Journey.

Month 3 - Month 6: Participation

In your first three months as an innovation leader, you will have crafted a clear, compelling vision for innovation that will spur your company into purposeful action (if you haven’t, go back and read this article). Let’s assume leaders are aligned and committed to the strategy that is in place. Now, you’re ready to activate and get people working towards achieving that vision. 

Participation is the next critical step to making innovation work. But you can’t just send out a company-wide email and expect people to start joining the work in droves. Innovation leaders mistakenly try a one-size-fits-all approach to get people involved. They incorrectly assume that the interest for innovation across their company is equally distributed. While that would be fantastic, it’s very rarely the case.

As you begin spreading the word, some people will jump at the prospect of doing new things. They have ideas and love solving problems. However, the majority of people may be skeptical, or even antagonistic at first. People reject things they don’t understand, and innovation is uncharted territory to most of the people you’re attempting to engage. For many, if not all of them, innovation falls beyond their day job, and you’ll need to convince them to go the extra step to help.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have a crowd of super fans outside your office eager to jump into innovation. You are in good company with many other innovation leaders who have faced this challenge. At Clareo and now with Forest as well, we’ve helped these leaders successfully navigate this complicated and sometimes discouraging stage.

Here are the five key patterns of success.

1 — Champion collaboration.

You are now the Chief Collaboration Officer, which means you need to pull out the best people and political skills you have. Schedule time with people to convey the vision one-on-one. Find ways to weave your message into larger meetings. Tie the vision to the objectives of each business unit leader’s strategies. Make it make sense for everyone. Ask great questions, and get people talking. Find problems to solve, and win friends and sponsors. As my colleague Rob Wolcott says, “Build bridges before you need them.” 

2 — Define a crystal clear process for innovation.

This is new territory for everyone, and very explicit instructions are essential. People must know exactly what to do when they have an idea, who to contact when they need a resource, where to go when they need a decision, and what content they need to provide to get a “yes!”. There is no such thing as overly prescriptive here – spell it out clearly. If you don’t, people won’t move a muscle. “Process” isn’t a bad word when it comes to innovation, especially when you’re just starting out. It creates freedom, creativity, and momentum when it is designed correctly and simple to understand and follow.

3 — Understand the adoption curve.

New concepts take time to be accepted. Everett Rodgers developed a framework for this back in 1962 that still holds true. “Innovators” love all things new but only represent 2.5% of a typical population. Only another 13.5% are considered early adopters (see graphic below). That means just two out of every ten people you talk to will be ready to engage the first time they hear the vision –our odds are below 20% to recruit a new advocate. Be patient, persistent, and targeted in your efforts to approach the right kinds of people.

Innovation Journey Series Month 3 - Month 6: Participation

4 — Go where the energy is.

In the early days of your innovation program, energy is currency. It must be managed, guarded, and spent in areas where there is likely to be a high return. Is there a group within the company that you dread talking to about innovation? Reconsider if that is a good use of energy. It’s probably not. You’ll spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince people, with little to show for it. Find groups within the organization that already care about the vision, want to help, and are willing to try new things. When energy meets energy, it’s catalytic for momentum.

5 — Get early wins.

The early adopters of your innovation vision are a great place to start. You’ll likely get their buy-in within the first few months. But winning the other eight out of 10 people is going to require some grit. You’ll need to prove that this whole “innovation thing” is worth it by demonstrating outcomes. People need to see that innovation leads to results, to promotions, to new opportunities, to cost savings, and to new customers. Find quick, small, and very near-term wins you can achieve – everything counts, no matter how small, but they need to be clear and undeniably linked to innovation. You will point to these early wins often.

You are almost guaranteed to be asked, “How many people are you engaging in innovation?” in months 3-6. At this stage, it’s become your measuring stick for determining if you have the chops to make the innovation program successful. Believe it or not, projects don’t matter as much as people at this stage. Engagement, participation, and advocacy is the key to success. Focus on it, optimize for it, be patient and commit to a strategy that builds momentum. If you can, you’ll be on the right track.

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