Jeffrey Baumgartner shares eight ingredients that are critical to the success of any innovation program.

Over the past few years, I have talked to a lot of people about their firms’ innovation structure, I have advised a number of them on how to improve that structure, I have written extensively on innovation in this journal and have had the pleasure of corresponding with a number of readers on the topic of organizational innovation. As a result, I have seen a lot of innovation plans, initiatives and strategies. And I have learned a few things.

Irrespective of what kind of organization yours is, there are eight ingredients that are essential to any innovation system if it is to succeed. In addition, there are a couple of optional ingredients that make a big difference to the level of success. Let’s look at the eight essentials first.

1. Top management buy-in

If senior management does not buy into your innovation process, no one else will. Obvious and simple, yet widely ignored. In many companies, the CEO talks the talk about innovation but demonstrates an aversion to any kind of change. Of course you cannot have innovation without change. So, employees quickly figure out that innovation is a slogan rather than an action and focus their efforts elsewhere.

On the other hand, when the CEO truly champions innovation, personally launches the initiative, demonstrates a real interest in the results of your innovation strategy and implements innovative ideas — it quickly becomes clear that the CEO’s firm is an innovative one and employees act accordingly.

The exception to this rule exists in large companies with relatively autonomous business units. If the senior manager of such a unit takes the lead with innovation, then the business unit can often succeed in its innovation initiative irrespective of the CEO’s actions. But of course, in such a scenario, the business unit is effectively a business in its own right.

2. Budget

Budget is intimately connected with the first ingredient. One of the most effective ways for senior management to buy into innovation is for them to allot budget for the initiative. This makes it clear that innovation is not just a slogan, but an investment for which a return is expected. Moreover, middle managers keen to get a portion of the budget will devote time resources to innovation initiatives in order to get a piece of the budget.

3. Communication

This is a bit of a no-brainer, really. If no one knows about your innovation initiative, no one can participate. Hence, once your initiative is ready to launch, it is critical that people know about it, what it is meant to accomplish and how they should participate.

The main recipients of your communications strategy should, of course, be participating employees in your organization. Nevertheless, an effective innovation communications strategy should also target investors, customers, business partners and the general public. The more all concerned understand that innovation is a critical component of your firm’s identity, the more it becomes the case.

4. Rewards

Complementing communications is a rewards scheme for participating in your innovation activities. Rewards should be relatively small and recognize participation rather than good ideas. Rewarding innovation is a complex issue.

5. Dedicated innovation people

In many firms, once the CEO decides that innovation is important, an announcement is made and managers are expected to manage their own innovation initiatives. However, because innovation is not each manager’s priority, initiatives are unlikely to be very effective. They will be designed to appease quickly top management rather than achieve results. A much better approach, of course, is to assign an individual, individuals or a team the mandate of managing your organization’s innovation strategy.

When a manager’s job description is exclusively to manage an innovation strategy, she is far more likely to design and implement a well thought out plan. Moreover, she has a substantial stake in the initiative’s success and so can be expected to continue to invest in the initiative over the long term.

6. Collaborative innovation tools

Small companies in a single location can probably get by without collaborative innovation tools. In a small organization, people can readily meet with each other in the office in order to share and develop ideas. But medium and large enterprises need collaborative tools in order to facilitate the collaborative generation, development and evaluation of creative ideas across the entire enterprise.

Some organizations get by without a purpose built idea management system. Usually, however, they use e-mail, shared documents or a simple in-house database tool for sharing ideas. While such tools enable some collaborative idea development, they tend to be labor intensive and fail to exploit fully the creative potential of employees.

In this ingredient, I have not included personal creativity and innovation tools such as mind mapping tools and the like as these are very much a matter of personal preference. Some people find mind-mapping software to be a great creativity aid. Others feel it is an unnecessary gadget that gets in the way of creative thinking.

Each individual has her own tools and methods for creative thinking. Rather than demand the use of a particular personal creativity tool for all employees, firms should give employees the freedom to use the tools that work best for each person.

7. Effective evaluation system

Assuming you have in place the ingredients I have described so far, you have the recipe for generating and developing ideas. The next step is to identify those ideas which have the greatest potential to become profitable innovations.

For all but small, incremental innovations, you will probably have a multi-step evaluation process in which each step acts as a filter that removes less promising ideas.

However, it is important that your evaluation process is not a purely critical one. It is easy for evaluators to find all the weak points in an idea. But this can result in very promising ideas being rejected. So, evaluators should be asked not merely to criticize ideas, but also to provide suggestions on overcoming the problems they have identified.

8. Willingness to invest in innovative ideas

One of the consequences of an innovation strategy is the development of potentially innovative ideas. Surprisingly, many organizations invest in creativity and innovation tools, but then fail to implement the most innovative ideas they generate.

This is usually the result of excessive risk aversion, large approval committees, too much internal bureaucracy or a combination of these. Whatever is the cause, the result is a creativity program which generates ideas rather than an innovation strategy in which creative ideas are implemented in order to keep ahead of the competition and increase income.

Bonus ingredients

In addition to the essential ingredients to an innovation strategy I’ve described already, there are a few additional ingredients which, although not critical, are very helpful in insuring success.

9. Enthusiasm

Every now and then I talk with an innovation manager, in a prospective client firm, who is extremely enthusiastic about his or her job. What starts as a demonstration of Jenni idea management soon turns into a highly energetic, thought provoking discussion on organizational innovation in which we share ideas and get really excited about the possibilities.

I have learned that these managers are not only more likely to become clients than non-enthusiasts, but also that they are far more likely to lead successful innovation initiatives.

While enthusiasm is useful for any activity, business or otherwise, it seems particularly beneficial to innovation. Enthusiasm encourages participation in the initiative (always a challenge!), makes people feel good about their participation and tends to encourage more radical thinking. If employees know that their crazy ideas are enthusiastically welcomed, they are encouraged to push their creative thinking ever further.

10. Diversity

If your firm is full of young engineers from MIT, you doubtless employ some of the best engineers available. But when it comes to generating creative ideas, you will find that they tend to take a similar approach to problem solving. Their backgrounds will be similar, their training similar and their familiarity with each other too close.

On the other hand, if your firm employees a wide range of people with different educational backgrounds, different kinds of experience and of different cultures, your firm will have the advantage of breadth of knowledge, experience and thinking. That results in a wider range of ideas and a higher level of creativity. Assuming you have the eight essential ingredients of an innovative firm in place, those more creative ideas can become more incredible innovations.

Diversity is not essential to innovation, but it does facilitate a higher level of innovation.

So there you have it. The eight essential ingredients for an innovative enterprise. How does your firm stand? And what do you think? Have I missed an ingredient? Do you disagree? I’d love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts in the comments area below.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the authorJeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.