How NASA Built an Innovation Program

Learning & Development Executive Summit Spring

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What separates the great innovators from the industry laggards? What empowers long-standing hierarchical organizations like LEGO to make big, creative bets that pay off (like the LEGO Movie) while other once-great brands like Tower Records, Pan Am, or Pets.com have all gone away?

What are the differentiators that matter between those organizations? With more and more organizations trying to compete with large companies as well as start-up disruptors, creating a repeatable innovation discipline is important (even in the nonprofit sector). And the surprising part is that those differentiators aren’t about technology or creativity… but something else.

In a recent interview with the United Way’s VP of Innovation, Edwin Goutier, he talked about trends shaping the nonprofit sector (as well as others) and offered up some suggestions for those leading innovation programs. I think that both of these pieces of advice are actually indicators for what differentiates an innovative organization from one that will someday shuffle off the Fortune 500.

Information is almost synonymous with innovation. Goutier shared an oft-quoted statement that “data is more valuable than oil” (based on comparisons made between data-revenue companies like Facebook and Google which, alone, are worth $1.3 trillion, versus the combined value of the top five non-Chinese oil companies at $1.1 trillion. This means that organizations that can plug into this data and make sense of this information will have a distinct advantage over those who do not. This means gathering information about what inspires or repulses a person, what messages they need to hear when, and then making changes to your strategy that accommodate these insights. In some ways, the digital age is the research age and it requires all of us to listen and to make positive change as a result.

Innovation means we have to get better and faster at implementation. We need to find ways to test new ideas and clear the runway for those concepts that prove initial value. At an innovation conference in 2019, Mei Jiang of HP stated that “the impact of technology on competitiveness is diminishing – instead our competitive differentiation will come from leaders who can move swiftly, refine or revisit business models, invest in new channels, partner in an interesting way, and deliver on great ideas.” In other words – all the creative energy and money in the world will not save you if you can’t explore and grow new suggestions.

One thing that Goutier cites to help with the difficult task of implementing innovation is delivering on meaningful quick wins while focusing on other longer-term, disruptive strategies at the same time. It is very important for innovators to balance minor improvements with giant leaps in innovation. Those minor improvements will help you refine your process, build faith in the program, improve overall experience and deliver a small return and all those virtues will make it easier to work on the more difficult, longer-term disruptive bets you’re thinking about for your organization.

To listen to the full podcast episode, visit the IdeaScale Nation episode page on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

About the author

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale: the largest open innovation software platform in the world. Hoehn launched crowdsourcing software as part of the open government initiative and IdeaScale’s robust portfolio now includes many other industry notables, such as EA Sports, NBC, NASA, Xerox and many others. Prior to IdeaScale, Hoehn was Vice President of Client Services at Survey Analytics.

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