Putting innovation into action

Two coworkers collaborate and put their innovation into action.

One of the unequivocal things that the post-COVID-onset environment for transformational change has taught us is that it’s imperative for initiatives to be able to demonstrate to the business (quickly and clearly) the value that they bring, to whom and how much.

(The old “when” part of those questions is pretty much a given these days: i.e. it’s now, or at least as soon to now as is practicable.) But when attempting to apply this to innovation activities — which may promise benefits on a longer payback timescale, or require other foundational work to fully run its course first, or be harder to encapsulate in financial terms — how can an organisation know that it’s ‘doing innovation’ right? What measurements can you take to determine capability and capacity to innovate (generally), and the impact of a particular innovation project (specifically)?

In this piece:

An ideal innovation lifecycle is truly end-to-end. It begins at the nebulous, often unexpected spark of inspiration, runs though idea capture, prototyping, wider testing with larger scale ‘demonstrator’ projects and more, eventually leading to the development of some new (or vastly improved) product, service or practice change.

These stages are often repeated, with feedback loops capturing, consolidating and disseminating the learning points along the way. Rigorous decision gates are employed to determine whether ideas progress to the next stage — the whole process being designed to whittle down a pool of bright ideas into a focused stream of workable changes that deliver benefits to the organisation.

A graph showing the innovation lifecycle: Inspiration, idea capture & refinement; prototypes & pilots; demonstrators & exemplars; product, service or practice

The iteration and its branches (off and back again) tend to make practical representations of the process far messier than the ideal “funnel diagram” often deployed to make it appear neater and more easily managed (and predictable) than it really is.

However, notwithstanding the messiness when research meets the real world (when are actual transformation projects ever really as simple as their PowerPoint overview slide might suggest…?), it’s still a good high-level concept to hang on to as you start to look at the best ways to make these elements work in your own organisational context (with its particular native talent pool and technology estate, partner contributions, financial resources, stakeholder commitment, appetite for risk and market conditions).

Managing to succeed

Although maybe daunting to describe in print or diagrammatic form, the innovation lifecycle isn’t a dark art to be left to luck and happenstance. Support comes from technology (in the form both of specialist tools — manging ideation processes, for example; and intelligent application of more generic interconnected collaboration, workflow, adaptive case management and information management solutions), as well as from the expertise and experience that trusted partners can bring to the table.

They will have seen and done it before (in scenarios similar to your own) and can help your organisation grow its capability into the shape it needs to be in order to innovate more naturally and natively. Plus they can plug capacity gaps in the meantime to get things off the ground on the way to scaling up.

A summary of activities across lifecycle stages follows:


A moment to look up and look around first — a horizon-scanning/trend-scouting/sector synthesis phase — is a good prelude to the actual ideation processes (generation, capture, and refinement, etc.).

That way you can feed in pertinent information like customer behaviour patterns, legislative overhauls, the evolution of emergent technologies and how they might become relevant, competitor analysis and intelligence about practice shifts in other industries that may contain nuggets of transferability. It’s all grist to the idea mill and will help keep things in scope (and can spark some ingenuity that’ll feed off one or more of these change factors).

Idea capture and refinement

Attention then turns to generating the fuel for the innovation engine proper: the idea capture and refinement process.

Best to go wide and varied in terms of capture mechanisms at this stage to ensure you sweep up a variety of ideas from a range of sources. Openness and iteration (across the organisation, and beyond its boundaries) encourages engagement and enriches the process — both in terms of the original perspectives brought to bear to surface initial suggestions (potentially overcoming biases or assumptions that could otherwise develop), and also with interactivity providing the means by which people can comment, tune and improve on the original in an agile manner.

To provide focus, this stage is often time-boxed and tied to particular challenge themes, campaigns or hackathon competitions. But it can also pay to keep a “suggestion box” running to receive ad hoc ideas as they occur (although this method does miss out on the momentum you’d get from more of a campaign-like initiative).

Evaluation and selection (for progression to the next stage) can take on many guises — from leveraging engagement metrics (ratings, comments, etc.) to staging explicit votes (votes up, down, in, or out … even mock stock market role-playing to “invest” in a spread portfolio of ideas). However these crowd-orientated approaches are typically used to provide nonbinding indicators or assist with a first cut.

Final stage gate approvals often also rely on scorecards with criteria that tie back to organisational imperatives, run-offs (idea A vs idea B), expert assessments, etc.  — and might be overseen by a central innovation manager or devolved to business managers responsible for running their own innovation campaigns (focused on their interests) in a more decentralised form of gate-keeping. The latter being a good way to embed innovation thinking beyond any core innovation team, so the whole organisation feels that it has more of a stake in the process and its successes.

Prototypes and pilots … demonstrators and exemplars

The best ideas then get treated to an ever more detailed and more widely tested series of prototyping (on paper first, with real potential users involved early and often in the proceedings in order to sculpt something most likely to fly).

Projects transition through closed and then open piloting, with larger-scale demonstrators and exemplars reserved for those that prove their concepts at pilot stage and for which there’s a need to test whether the benefits already seen (in a more controlled environment) can also be realised when exposed to more real-world variables. If it works for X, will it also work for Y (or was X a special case)?

Those that make it to exemplar status are effectively at production level but with the added attention of being held up as beacons to inspire future change.

Into production

In terms of projects that make it through to being launched as the new “business-as-usual” products, services and practices … to have made it that far, they really need to have demonstrated greatness in some area — but it need not be in every area.

Sometimes simple innovations can capture the mood and anticipate the need of the intended audience without extensive application of bells and whistles. Pragmatic realism prevails in most situations, so innovations need not be perfect, but they should be demonstrably better (than what was available before) in enough ways to nudge people to embrace the change.

That might be because the shiny new product or process is elegantly simple (omitting superfluous functionality) or particularly intuitive. Or perhaps it adds crucial new features, is safer or more secure to operate, or sports improved environmental sustainability credentials. Or maybe it’s more focused on its target market or more able to be customised to cope in a variety of situations. Or it could just come down to fashion. In any case, there are many reasons an innovation succeeds (or fails) to win over its target audience. Be alive to all of them.

How do you know you’re doing it right?

Seek not only “what should you look for,” but also how you can learn from both the good and the bad.

Identify how one best sells those successes in order to reinforce belief in the innovation practice — both from senior management and also across the wider organisation.

That way you’ll maintain a supportive community that will help ease adoption routes, as well as help retain sponsorship and funding.

Know your culture

Be honest with yourself when assessing “how things really get done around here.”

Acknowledge that there may well be pockets of inertia, but rather than overly dwelling on being determined to pull all those corners of the organisation in at the start … instead, demonstrate impact (in their areas, in their terms) that could help encourage them to join in of their own volition next time around.

And if they’re still reluctant to get involved, it’s not an innovation deal-breaker. Better to empower anyone who wants “in” (by casting a wide ideation net and setting up a welcoming community with a genuine stake in the process) than expending disproportionate energy in fruitlessly trying to engage with everyone (including those more reluctant to join in).

Creating a positive learning culture of innovation thinking can help draw people in and keep them interested, though. Some principles to adopt:

  • Obstacles can be opportunities — If not to do what has always been done before, only “better,” but rather to do new, “better” things that hadn’t been conceived of (or thought possible) until now;
  • All ideas and comments are welcome, from all comers — Disregard how long you’ve been with the organisation or what role you have there. Encourage people to step outside of their role for a while when considering innovation possibilities. Employees are also customers themselves, after all; plus everyone has interests and experience beyond the workplace that can be brought to bear when invited to ‘think differently;’
  • Everyone is recognised for their contributions and commitment — whether that’s in making an original suggestion, or being part of the ensuing process that worked it up. This helps people feel ‘part of something’ more than the sum of their core tasks, which strengthens the psychological contract between organisation and individual employee;
  • Ruling something out is as valuable as ruling it in — it doesn’t mean that the earlier endeavours with a now-discarded idea were a waste of time; rather, that you’ve learnt plenty about how not to do something, and that subsequent effort expended on alternatives will be more focused.

Feed the machine

Feedback is an essential tool for keeping your innovation community involved and maintaining momentum through lifecycle processes. It can provide learning points to take on board for the next time through, and it can show the impact the project’s making — directly referencing people’s participation so not just originators, but everyone involved along the way gets celebrated and can see that their time was well-spent.

Plus any such interactions improve the transparency of the whole process — breaking down barriers between the core innovation function and the wider organisation.

Maintain your balance

A well-managed innovation portfolio contains a mix of quick wins and larger, longer-term projects of incremental vs. disruptive innovations. That way the risks are spread across different types of projects, and there’s always something going on in each lifecycle stage (maintaining momentum and wider interest).

Look up and look around

It’s crucial that innovation isn’t conducted in a vacuum.

You need to ensure you’re at least aware of (and embrace, where appropriate) digital transformations and innovations elsewhere in your industry (or even beyond). Other people’s innovation can extend beyond their organisational boundaries and impact on the direction you should be taking yourself.

It’s not just that you might find an industry-wide problem solved by other means (rendering your own particular project rather moot whilst still in development) – potentially a bad thing, but you may also conversely find that you can use something from elsewhere to enhance or accelerate your own innovation and leverage that piece as an ecosystem enabler for you — a good thing!

Rising tides can float all boats.

There’s an “adjacency effect” that can apply within the organisation too — affinity for innovative digital transformation in one area tends to have knock-on effects in others as people with common touch points in the business can see the benefits being realised there (especially if helped to see how they could be transferred into another, similar context — i.e. their own).

Count what counts

Impact measurement is important to everyone across the innovation community, not just its most senior stakeholders.

It helps people feel like the new products or practices they’re involved with are making a difference, as well as demonstrating the fact in clear terms to those who hold sway over whether to continue funding and support.

Analysing the measurement data of how innovations are being put to work (and the effect they’re having) can also help guide the overall innovation strategy (tweaking where to go/not go, as much as influencing a binary fund/don’t fund decision for individual projects or the programme at large).

It’s essential to count what actually counts though (not simply “what’s easy to count”). KPIs need to be appropriate both to the activities under the innovation banner and their timescale.

Not all innovations will have an obvious direct impact on financials so look for other ways to quantify benefits to the business — say, ‘shadow pricing’ of alternatives; ‘net social benefit’ scores that take in wider variables than just economic ones; the value of more “mission-driving” activities (if better able to be measured themselves) that have only been possible to accomplish because of time saved on more mundane tasks, etc. due to the application of an innovation.

And the achievements of some innovations are better seen as “second tier” benefits, built upon the foundations of earlier (potentially easier-to-justify sooner) activities … perhaps ones that laid the groundwork for a necessary cultural change or put in place reusable technology infrastructures, etc.

Call to action

Focus on outcomes, not individual innovation project outputs.

What impact will something have? Where? When? And to whom? What can you directly observe, and what must you infer from looking at other indicators?

The effects of using new products and services, or using existing ones in new ways, can lead to changes in adjacent areas, so take a holistic (and realistically timed) view of how the business is working and how customers are responding after an intervention.

Think about how to get to that end point, and work backwards too.

It’ll help earlier decisions if you always have your eye on the prize. That said, don’t be so blinkered that you fail to notice your original end goal is no longer quite so prized (priorities and environments shift along the way!). Or that your innovation actions have had unintended consequences — whether positive or negative. Perhaps positive ones compensate for underperforming in the intended area of return (perhaps negative ones cancel out all the good you’ve done!).

Aim to investigate holistically to uncover the data now and for yourself, rather than have something good come to light further down the road (that could have saved a cancelled project) or something bad (that irredeemably tarnishes the reputation of what was once seen as having been a successful landing and may tar successor projects with the same brush).

Finally, technologies alone are not enough.

Innovations succeed as much because of the processes they enable and the people who follow them and help amplify their successes, as because of raw products or services themselves. Establish an innovation culture that makes it easy for all who want to, to get involved … and be prepared to unlearn and relearn what you thought you knew, as you take soundings and make adjustments along the way!

This is the third blog in a three-part series on the subject of post-COVID-onset innovation and modernisation. In Part 1 we explored the environment for innovation in an age of disruption, and in Part 2 we looked at various techniques designed to make innovation work best for your type of organisation (and how to recognise what sort of an innovation organisation you actually are).

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Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today. He examines how this helps tech suppliers better anticipate and respond to their customers’ needs, as well as how tech buyers get the best value from their investments.
He has 30 years of experience in technology and change across the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, in a broad range of roles (including analyst research, consultancy, technology strategy, innovation and service delivery).
Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today.... read more about: Craig Wentworth