Where do good projects really come from and why despite so much progress in project management technology and methodologies, projects with poor returns and project failure rates remain so high?

Here are my observations on which innovation programs succeed or disrupt and which ones stagnate or fail. Understanding the premise and promise of fostering creative ideas that translate into winning projects.

Every week I make it a point to speak with Innovation management practitioners from around the world. The domain of innovation and feedback management is one which requires constant new thinking and tinkering. The single biggest challenge that stands out is how can an organization maintain interest and focus to drive innovation efforts forward.

Innovation is not easy if not everyone would be doing it! Here is a great quote from Niccolo Machiavelli:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

This is what I have seen in terms of best practices from the best in class companies:

  • Innovate beyond just new products and features; never assume innovation is one group’s responsibility. Some organizations empower the CMO to help drive new revenue, others may have HR who looks for ideas and suggestions to reduce costs and improve employee engagement. But the best in class do not innovate in silos. There is a clear desire and effort to make innovation an all-encompassing and ongoing cross functional endeavor with great visibility and transparency built into the process and results. This means every executive has an innovation mandate and there is a shared innovation system. The organization as a whole looks for innovation in the following areas:
  1. New product/service development
  2. Explore new markets
  3. Better monetize existing products/services
  4. Enhance the customer experience
  5. Business model transformation
  6. Continuous improvement initiative
  7. Business process improvement
  8. Health, safety, working conditions and environmental improvements
  9. Increasing employee engagement
  • Establish proper innovation targets and investments that match corporate objectives to manage risks, reduce costs and increase revenue. Whether the company treats its Innovation efforts as Aspirin or Vitamin (see http://www.fastcompany.com/1826271/your-company-selling-aspirin-or-vitamins), the innovation program’s value must match the organic growth plans. Unless M&A is an integral growth strategy, then higher than single digit to double digit organic revenue growth targets means you are making the right investments in innovation systems, program and culture.
  • Ensure all innovation meetings and discussions are captured and managed in one central system. Ideas should come from anywhere people work and play while a single system of record should be used to develop, prioritize and manage your innovation. They do this by instituting the right business practices and incentives (recognition and rewards through gamification). Millennials can quickly change positions or leave the organization which means even greater care must go into documenting and maintaining the ideas and concepts that are developed during their participation.
    Idea evaluation and experimentation processes are clearly defined and integrated into the innovation system. This allows organizations to properly manage the intake of new ideas with the right metrics which foster accountability and route ideas to the right team to evaluate. It also ensures ideas are properly vetted through a fail fast learn fast agile approach which includes a feedback loop to help develop creative ideas to become winning projects.
  • Choose their innovation system very carefully with greater focus on the experience and track record for delivering results. Enterprise Software selection can get tricky sometimes and you can place too much weight on the initial price, fancy features that may not have an actual use, or eye candy factor instead of proven domain expertise and battle-tested experience. There is magic in systemizing innovation management, which also means you learn by doing and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert certainly applies to innovation management solution providers. A culture and discipline of making sure we are learning from our mistakes, takes more than a few iterations.
  • Plan a variety of approaches by investing in the design of the right mix of innovation levers. Here are some of the popular and successful ones we have observed:
  1. Social engagement for coming up with great ideas and a true recipe for success by involving the right people and community at the right time to really help shape the idea. The idea submitter efforts are greatly complemented by idea collaborators, evaluators, moderators and champions.
  2. Jam sessions that create an organization-wide rallying point post-merger or acquisition or around the announcement of new corporate strategic goals.
  3. Quarterly Challenges aimed at providing feedback or ideas on organization-wide challenges to help achieve corporate objectives based on the organization’s strategy.
  4. Decision sessions aimed at identifying high value bureaucracy busters and quickly solving problems in an agile fashion by making real time decisions in small groups in sessions typically under one hour.
  5. Crowdsourcing by leveraging the wisdom of the crowds be it suppliers, partners, customers or the community at large to get interesting ideas from an external perspective that can help the organization execute on its strategy.
  6. Diversity and inclusion sessions to leverage diversity as a competitive advantage. Organizations create discreet employee resource groups to help manage “The Crowd” and use diversity for collaborative ideation, problem-solving campaigns, soliciting feedback, and challenge-driven collaboration that connects eclectic point of views, backgrounds, ethnicities, communities and cultures.
  7. Brainstorming sessions that involve a smaller group that meet informally to discuss various topics and come up with ideas that may then be submitted to a group for review or retained for further development.
  8. Business competitions (shark tanks) that involve senior leadership and various teams can participate in the event held over 30 days and typically goes through two judging panels before making the final cut.
  9. Innovation Day (Hackathons) to allow creative minds to work on presenting new ideas in a free flowing and non-restricted setting.
  10. Online Suggestion Box a catch all for any feedback or ideas which can be routed to the appropriate functional area for consideration and review with best practices built in to help manage and streamline the effort and avoid idea and suggestion black holes.
  • Work very closely with their innovation management partner. The ongoing access and nurture of the innovation program with the right partner who has the battle tested best practices is as important as having a great cloud based solution that gets updated on an ongoing basis. It makes life a lot easier and results are much more predictable when the partner’s mandate includes continually reporting and analyzing your innovation results. This know-how can play a major role in developing a sustainable program that delivers results at a fraction of the internal costs.

Great software guides, streamlines and automates the innovation process but as you would expect it may only help address part of the battle. The right solution coupled with an expert partner will help provide the structure and support for your innovation management program. It will provide the visibility everyone is looking for from the top-down or the bottom-up. Evergreen agile innovation will require a well-planned and committed organization that makes the right investments and works closely with the right partners to experiment, change and improve on an ongoing basis.

I would love to read your comments on what you have seen on how the best of the best innovate?