As innovation guru Steve Blank pointed out, “Companies are not larger versions of startups. There’s been lots written about how companies need to be more innovative, but very little on what stops them from doing so.”
Today, we’re doing our part to change that. Welcome to the third blog in this series on overcoming the challenges of corporate innovation.
The process of executing successful innovation at the enterprise level is very different from what works at a startup. You will use similar concepts and aim for the same goal of market disruption, but starting from another mindset and using different project management skills.
Don’t try to fit your enterprise into a startup model. You will be able to execute innovation successfully using a time-tested methodology that acknowledges and optimizes the strengths of the enterprise.
To refresh your memory, there are four key steps to innovation breakthrough for enterprise-level projects.
Step 1: Create intention and shared vision
Step 2: Socialize intention and organize resources
Step 3: Establish plan aligned with core competencies
Step 4: Reflect on progress and make necessary adjustments
Before the project even gets started, you need to make sure your team is working from an aligned, shared vision of how the original idea can actually operate in harsh reality (Step 1). With that collaborative vision supporting project development, you will have to concentrate the full power of your available enterprise resources using socialization and organizational factors (Step 2).
During Step 2, innovators often discover that additional resources and people will be needed for the project to reach a sustainable level. Once you identify and secure these resources, this expanded team will be the engine to drive the work and trudge “through the muck” until you arrive at your goal of innovation breakthrough.
Today, we come to Step 3 in the innovation breakthrough process. You will take what you have learned so far and develop a strategic plan of action that is aligned with the core competencies of the enterprise as a whole.
Victor Lipman, who has more than two decades of Fortune 500 front-line and executive management experience, said this about setting expectations:
“Most people who’ve been around the corporate world a while have likely seen how easily in the absence of clarity projects and performance veer off track. With much wasted time and money.”
To travel along a more prosperous innovation path, you must understand the execution process – from vision to speed, and build a structure to maximize the results. Otherwise, as Lipman stated, your project will veer off track.
Here is how you establish a plan aligned with core competencies.
No Plan, Means No Direction
The need for stability in this project will largely depend on its scope. Larger projects requiring months, even years of work, require some serious structure in place to make sure sub-projects are completed smoothly and consistently. Relatively small innovation projects still need structure, but speed and precision are higher priorities.
Regardless of the scope, however, you will need a plan that gives the project direction.
So how do you create and maintain direction?
Set milestones and keep them in clear view of the project team. At the same time, make sure you have ready access to metrics so you can provide execs with on-demand status updates that are unequivocal, even as your team rolls with the twists and turns that the project will inevitably take. Support your team so they can work in a fluid, but efficient nature to make this happen.
It comes down to you and your team being on the same page not only with the map and direction, but also with each other when it comes to communication.
The Importance of a Plan
Once the group has fully formed (via Step 2), the real work begins: constructing of a plan to align core competencies. As Peter Drucker once said: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” However, in the absence of plans true direction cannot exist and inevitably hard work is wasted.
Develop a map to understand the destination and see what direction to travel down. Be absolutely clear on what resources you have at your disposal, then move the best players into position. This sets the stage for flawless execution of the plan.
You will need a structured process for collecting and organizing what you have learned and lay out a schedule of what do next. You will also need to decide how much weight to place on specific priorities.
A good place to start is The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. This covers why it is important to build a great plan that identifies promising sources of “big ideas” and systematic methods for measuring them. This entire process is part of Step 2, completed during the socializing intention phase.
Your project will need structure and a process to follow to make sure things don’t come off the rails, especially when there are multiple team members from various departments involved. Each will have their own priorities and responsibilities that need to be synced up with project goals. If you are in charge of this project and you don’t have a process to follow, it is very likely that you will spend more time with distractions than you do bringing deliverables to completion. Delays are sometimes unavoidable, but you can significantly improve your odds of execution through better planning.
Securing Early Wins & Maintaining Alignment
It is crucial to secure early wins by following a structured method and avoid taking on too much, according to Watkins. Knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do. This is the key to weeding out non-essential factors. As with any new project you cannot hope to achieve results without limiting your scope and being clear on identifying opportunities aligned with your vision.
Now is the time to maintain consistency and keep people to their commitments in order to maintain momentum. Equally important is the need to build energy inside your team. Nothing does that better than success. Create a healthy competitive environment where each member is aggressively driving the agenda for the betterment of the team.
Once the team has established success and credibility for negotiating success and additional resources, it’s time for realignment with the boss. Watkins recommends investing your time here as your boss sets your benchmarks, interprets the success of the project and controls access to needed resources. By being proactive you can maintain alignment and meet the expectations of your boss.
Quality Work and Playing Defense
You have to be all about action if you want to make this work. Having the team on the same page so you can roll with the project’s twist and turns requires some flexibility, but that shouldn’t impact quality. Schedule regular meetings with the stakeholders throughout the organization who are involved in the project. Continue to listen to their ideas and concerns and implement them as necessary. Keeping everyone on your team engaged will keep the project rolling and on time, and more importantly, maintain a level of consistency in the work. The more accountability, the more the work will continue to be up to par.
This will also serve as a defense against politics or personnel slowing the project down.
This project is going to have its detractors. In almost every organization there will be people who are opposed to change. Expect some people within your organization to consider your innovation projects to be too lofty or impractical in nature with not enough bite. This is your chance to prove the naysayers wrong. This is when you need to play a little defense and take great care to deliver the right structure to protect the innovation project and maintain the highest quality of work.
It’s All about Execution
There is typically a point in every big project when the excitement level dials down and the realities of the actual construction set in. That is why it is important to talk about the execution of the project even more as it develops. Don’t be the manager who gets a reputation of having no follow-through skills. Make sure everyone on the project team continues to understand their roles and duties and begin to pay attention to the communication patterns happening between stakeholders about the project. Are there certain people who should be looped into conversations and not others?
Benoit Hardy-Vallee, Ph.D., PMP, and former consultant at Gallup, said about running successful projects:
“Project team member engagement affects how stakeholder requirements are achieved; it also affects the strength of team members’ relationships with each other and with their stakeholders — which in turn stimulates performance.”
As the project develops over several months you will begin to see what is working and what isn’t, and that is when you need to begin having more meetings about the execution so you can drill down the path to the finish line and make sure the stakeholders (and yourself) don’t become jaded on the idea of completion. Measure progress and course correct as necessary driven by the data and direct feedback from your customers.
Reflecting on the Function of Innovation
Now more than ever diversity and inclusion play a big role to ensure commitment to change of the status quo. That’s what innovation projects are about! In an article for Entrepreneur, Rebel Brown, author of Defy Gravity, wrote:
“the key to evolving and prospering is to not only challenge some of our most basic business assumptions, but, in some cases, to reject them outright.”
Simply put, we have to be open to question every step of the process to be successful (even the process of questioning the process). As measurements and course corrections are made in the step above, take time to analyze and reflect. Lay out what has worked to stay on track and prevent further delays.
If conditions have changed since launch, you may need to pivot. If meeting the original deadline will not meet the goals of the project, make a case as to why it may need more time. You may need to involve other stakeholders and secure more leadership support. We’ll discuss this in the next blog.
In the meantime, make sure that you understand that developing a scalable plan, having continuous communication with the project team, and maintaining quality is vital for an innovation breakthrough, especially as you enter the “real work” phase.