Your organization holds you accountable for the profit or loss of one of its brands, channels, or regions. Maybe you oversee the business as a whole. You have an opportunity to apply collaborative innovation as a means to engage a wide swath of colleagues on resolving a critical business question with you. Should you proceed? If you do proceed, what points should you keep in mind to ensure you make productive use of your time and the time of your community members? In this article, community architect Doug Collins covers the four critical points to consider as the potential business sponsor of an ideation challenge.

A Way Forward

The lady from the corporate IT department wants to meet with you tomorrow morning. You recall that she wears Anne Klein and has a background in finance. She wants to talk with you about whether her group’s newly launched collaborative innovation program would benefit you. Her group’s senior vice president mentioned to her that you—your business unit—face critical challenges that will affect your P&L in the new fiscal year. Challenges that require you to think of new ways to keep your most important (read: profitable) clients in the fold. Challenges that require you to deliver more with less by identifying and eliminating waste.

You know: the same old, same old—only more of it.

Let’s be honest, you tell yourself, neither you nor the people who know you expected you to remain in your current role for this long. The recession has been rough. However, you told yourself years ago that plateaus were for camping on, not for defining careers—not your career, at least. You have more to offer. Maybe fresh approaches and thinking are just what the doctor ordered for your staff and you. The board seems to be talking the language of innovation of late, as well.

You decide to give her 30 minutes. You pride yourself in preparing for every meeting. What questions should you ask her to ensure you get what you want from the initiative, assuming you decide to sponsor it? Figure 1 depicts the guidance that follows.

Go or No Go?

First, do not allow the current fascination with collaboration, social media, and the like get in the way of the fact that you have agreed to have a business discussion, regardless of whether you run the for- or non-profit variety. Yes, your kids use social media to follow Justin Bieber. That’s not your charter here, of course. Implication? From the moment you first seriously consider sponsoring a collaborative innovation initiative, your question to the people that you designate to support the activity should be, “What critical business question can my community explore and, ideally, resolve together?” and the adjunct, “What does success look like from making this effort?”

Do not proceed further if you cannot answer these questions to your satisfaction.

Probe. Do you want to retain 10% more clients, year over year? Clients attached to a particular segment? Then guide your community in contributing ideas on this topic. If you adopted the Balanced Scorecard then consider the linkages you make between your financial targets and your strategy for serving customers. You will find fertile ground for developing a series of compelling questions around realizing the potential for client engagement.

Keep in mind that you are not telling them how to increase retention. The collaborative innovation program helps the community surface the “how.” As sponsor, you provide the “why.”

Have one of your staff—the person you designate as your campaign manager for the initiative—get a copy of Arthur Van Gundy’s Getting to Innovation. He does a good job of explaining how to properly form a challenge that ties to the critical business challenges you want to tackle with your community.

Format the question properly and you win more than half the battle in terms of ensuring your initiative succeeds from the start.

Second, make sure that the people promoting the benefits of collaborative innovation program spend time with your team and you on refining this question. Format the question properly and you win more than half the battle in terms of ensuring your initiative succeeds from the start. Ignore this part of the process or delegate it to a staff member and, six weeks from now, find yourself reviewing ten variations of an idea promoting the benefits of permitting casual dress on Fridays. Are flip flops in or out? Do not go there. Do not waste your time. Do not assume that your core team shares a clear understanding of the critical problem that you want the community to address with you.

Third, recognize that sponsoring a collaborative innovation campaign means committing three types of resource: resource on the front end to properly frame and position the challenge; resource to run the activity; and, resource on the back end to make meaning of the community’s contributions and decide which ideas to pursue.

The person you designate to spearhead the initiative on your behalf will find this work represents a part-time job for the duration. You, personally, will need to commit a couple hours on the front end ensuring the initiative gets off the ground properly, a couple hours a week during the campaign engaging with the community, and some number of hours deciding which ideas you want to pursue once the campaign ends.

Crowdsourcing, along with holding the promise of delivering a richer set of quality ideas, does automate some of the work on the fuzzy front end. However, crowdsourcing does not offer a pass on the thought and discretion you would apply to any critical business activity.

Further, when you succeed in crafting a well-formed challenge that resonates with the community, then you will likely receive an overabundance of contributions to review. Whose judgement do you trust as fellow reviewers? Who would you want to weigh in on the ideas with you? Can you free them for this work?

The campaign demands that certain people hold certain defined roles. You have an opportunity to slot people into them.

Last, but not least, consider your staff. You know you have some who have not reached their potential, either because you have them in the wrong role today or because you have not found the time to coach them. Could you use the collaborative innovation initiative to kill two birds with one stone? Do you give this activity to a high-potential individual to see what they can do with it? Do you encourage them to contribute and perhaps also take on a defined role such as moderator or coach?

Probe your IT person on this question. The campaign demands that certain people hold certain defined roles. You have an opportunity to slot people into them.

In closing and summary, consider the following as the potential business sponsor:

  • You are applying social media and collaborative innovation to solve a business problem. Focus your energy on helping the group articulate the business problem. What is the critical question?
  • Do not delegate this discussion. Make sure the question’s form and grammar conveys what you need it to convey in terms of clarity and emphasis. I can observe that many sponsors find the discussion around identifying and articulating the critical question to be highly valuable in its own right.
  • Recognize that you will need to dedicate resource to the activity: some of your time and more from the person you designate to lead the initiative on your behalf.
  • Consider whether the initiative could serve as an opportunity to develop your high potential people further by allowing them to realize their leadership potential in the area of innovation.

Innovation programs tend to receive a high degree of visibility within the organization and, to that end, could help further the careers of your staff, along with your own.

Figure 1: business sponsor’s line of enquiry with program lead for collaborative innovation

Click to enlarge

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.