Who is in control of your innovation process? If it is not management, your process will go nowhere, warns Jeffrey Baumgartner. Sadly, many companies launch half-baked innovation initiatives and hand control over to ill-trained managers, consultants, customers and even the general public.

All too often, the CEO decides that she needs to take innovation more seriously and names an employee “innovation manager”. This employee is charged with coming up with an innovation initiative to generate ideas and make the company more innovative. Seldom is there any training, any clearly goals or any discussion about linking innovation with strategy

Most likely, the newly anointed innovation manager goes to Google to find some useful resources and tools. Hopefully she will have some budget to buy a couple of good books. But, let’s be honest here. There is a lot of bullpoop out there about innovation.

I get sick to my stomach every time I read the posts in the various LinkedIn Innovation groups.  This is not a criticism of LinkedIn. The problem is that too many ill-informed consultants and self-proclaimed know-it-alls are shouting utter drivel in the innovation groups on the social networking site!

Yes, there are gems of information there. But unless you know the topic, it’s hard to find them. Worse, when any potential client poses a question, she is almost immediately inundated with aggressive sales pitches. It’s not pretty. Indeed, most potential clients learn to keep quiet and stay away from these forums.

The first go

Very often the first major action taken by the new innovation manager is to launch an initiative to generate ideas. Inevitably, there will be a cool name and a slick logo. The initiative may well include some kind of “idea management” software or there may be a simple idea submission form on the intranet. In some cases, the IT division is assigned to make a web solution. But this typically takes months, if not years, and the result is ineffective because software people tend not to understand the innovation process terribly well, unless they have made an effort to learn it.

In a worst case scenario, some kind of crowdsourcing tool will be put up, inviting everyone in the world and their grandmothers to submit any ideas they want to submit.

But who is in control?

The problem here is that at best, the idea manager is in control, but unless she is well versed in the importance of aligning innovation to strategy, the initiative is likely to be all over the place. This will likely result in a bunch of nice, incremental improvements to internal processes , products and customer service. But little more.

Worse, if the idea management or crowdsourcing tools are open suggestion schemes that invite any ideas, then it is no longer the idea manager who is in control. It is the people submitting ideas. Now that may seem grand in a lovey-dovey open innovation way. But if your company’s strategic aim is to produce easy-to-use, durable electronic gadgets, then suggestions about complex new features, incorporating new untested technologies or selling your product in Starbucks are not much good.

You need to take control!

Of course you, as a member of the management team, need to be in control of your company’s innovation process. The first thing you need to do is to determine your innovation goals. These should align with strategy. If your number one strategic aim is to produce the most delicious doughnuts in the world, then your innovation initiative should also work towards that aim and not towards the mere collection of ideas.

If yours is a bigger company, there are doubtless top level strategic goals as well as goals within the various business units. This is more complex, but needs to be addressed. Business units inevitably need to draw up their own innovation strategies that align with corporate strategy as well as their own.

Once you have aligned your innovation goals with your strategic goals, then it is time to let your newly anointed innovation managers loose. And you will probably need one for each business unit as well as one at the corporate level. Their instructions must not be: do innovation. Rather they should be instructed to set up an innovation initiative that aligns with strategy; that primarily generates ideas that move you towards your strategic goals and that enable you to evaluate and develop those ideas according to relevant strategic business criteria. That is not to say, of course, that there is no room for innovation in non-strategic areas. Only that such efforts should be secondary to goal-oriented innovation.

In truth, it’s not easy to do this and requires an investment of time and thought from your top people. But if you really and truly want your firm to be an innovation powerhouse, it is critical that you take control of your innovation from the beginning.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey 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.

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