Building Blocks to Create Your Own Successful Internal Innovation Programs
Since I started this blog series about corporate innovation and intrapreneurship, readers often ask which of my nine building blocks is most essential to mobilize an innovation disruption across an entire company.
Which is the cornerstone? Which carries the most weight? Which is most disruptive? Which impacts cultural transformation? Which turns employees into entrepreneurs?
My answer is always, “All nine of them.”
Like Lego blocks, each strategically fits into the bigger construct and reinforces its overall strength. Put another way, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
My nine building blocks are interdependent. Think of them holistically rather than independently. Take one out, and it weakens the foundation.
Together, they form a strong foundation to build a culture of innovation across all functions and organizations—no matter their size or market sector.
In that spirit, I’m reassembling all nine building blocks of launching successful internal innovation programs here in one place. Below are condensed versions of each building block that I laid out more extensively in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series:
First Building Block: Form a Community Network. No person is an island — don’t develop your plan on one. Build bridges with key allies to help shape and advocate your plans, including business unit leaders in all functions, disruptive rebels and steady mentors inside and outside the company. I prefer to call them your “co-conspirators.” This community will help to fuel a grassroots movement, overcome pockets of resistance or break down functional siloes once the games begin. We collaborated with 16 internal organizations, many with own innovation programs. And let the outside in. External experts bring fresh perspectives. Look for people who have challenged the norm and risked everything to start something new.
Second Building Block: Drive Alignment to Company Priorities. Don’t be a loose cannon aiming at every dream that streaks across the sky. Make sure your company-wide innovation program aligns with corporate priorities. In our case, we developed a Table of Strategic Innovation Elements, inspired by Adobe Kickbox, which focused innovators on specific markets, technologies, and business models.
Third Building Block: Secure Executive Commitment. Any grassroots movement needs strong and bold leadership. Without executive champions, especially the CEO and head of HR, such an ambitious cultural transformation will not survive the naysayers. Do your homework, win over the C-suite with the value proposition, game plan, and their roles as champions. And make sure they engage throughout the journey.
Fourth Building Block: Don’t Underestimate Engagement and Communication. Maintain and ramp up the buzz at each milestone of the challenge to stimulate participation, engagement, and enthusiasm around the teams, many of which will have their own feverish fan base. Blast out ongoing news, especially spotlights on teams, solutions, participants and coaches across all of your employee communications channels. Make sure leaders reinforce key messages such as the importance of forming cross-functional teams, following your passions and taking risks.
Fifth Building Block: Give Your Employees the Right Resources and Tools. Nearly everyone I know has at least one brilliant idea for an app. Very few, however, know how to develop it. You must equip innovation newcomers with everything they need. Resources should encompass a broad scope of specially packaged startup processes, technology tools, and examples of successful startups. At Cisco, we set up online resources through videos, a web site, links, workshops and downloadable guides.
Sixth Building Block: Invest in Development, Coaching and Mentorship. Hands-on and in-person skills training, coaching and mentorship can make the difference in whether your disruption gains momentum and scale. We set up three-day “boot camps” with semifinalists. Lean Startup experts taught teams how to fine tune their solutions, hone their messages, and sharpen their pitches. Make sure your mentors can be reached easily and quickly to overcome technical, business or political challenges. Mentors who guide teams are more valuable than traditional managers, who can be roadblocks to innovation.
Seventh Building Block: Give Your Employees Incentives and Rewards. Gift cards just don’t cut it here. To move the needle, you will need a combination of notable monetary rewards, public recognition, and job flexibility. Our three winning teams received $50,000 each in recognition and development funds, companywide acknowledgement at our All Hands meeting, access to our nine Innovation Centers worldwide, and, most importantly, the option of three months off to develop their ventures. Be sure your organization continues to support teams after they have won.
Eighth Building Block: Don’t Forget About Transparency and Metrics. Transparent communications enhance credibility and engagement throughout the journey. Invite employees to cast votes, make comments and form their own communities on an open platform, and communicate why certain teams advanced and others didn’t. Traditional metrics don’t apply to innovation, where failure can lead to success and uncertainty prevails. We used success factors such as employee participation and engagement by function, rank and geography; formation of community networks; discovery of game-changing ideas; and, attraction and retention of top talent.
Ninth Building Block: Have Fun and Gamify It! Make this serious business a fun and exciting experience that inspires employees, where the stakes and passions are high, and the winners celebrate victory with their colleagues. We haven’t incorporated Pokemon GO-type features yet, but the lesson is to create dynamic interactions through collaboration technology and exciting live events.
As mentioned in Part 3, these building blocks led to the wild success of our recent Innovate Everywhere Challenge, which captured three Gold Awards from Brandon Hall Group’s 2016 Excellence Awards program. Nearly 50 percent of our global workforce participated, generating 1,100 entries from more than 2,000 teams across 50 countries.
Here are key lessons learned:
Focus on the innovator – NOT the innovation
Build a grassroots, innovation community
Remain flexible: Listen and learn from employees, adjust course if necessary
Passionate innovation is contagious
Passion is an untapped force in many organizations, but when unleashed, can transform your culture into a game-changing disruptor. Passion can bring new levels of value to your company, customers and employees.
To me, today’s successful companies must engage the full spectrum of their talent around innovation. Brilliant ideas for the next big thing can come from anyone, anywhere. Especially when all employees feel engaged and empowered to unleash their passions around innovation.
On a personal note, I am most passionate about innovation in companies of all sizes and types. You can always contact me: