Internal Networks for Innovation

Continuing in the Five Pillars of Sustainable Innovation Culture discussion, let’s consider pillar number four: Network for Innovation Mentoring & Facilitation.  In this context, I am not referring to an open innovation network.  While open innovation has its role to play, the greater need is for internal organizational structure and process that creates a network within the enterprise to support the full scope of innovation activity.

There are many aspects to innovation best practices, and there are many types of innovation problems.   Innovation isn’t a point event that happens at a well defined place in the product lifecycle.  Innovation happens throughout the value creation chain.  Very early on, it is first seen as the identification of new opportunity space.  Subsequently, innovation may involve finding the concrete strategy to convert the nascent idea into a commercially deliverable offering.  Further on in the process, we may be faced with unforeseen technical or quality challenges that must be overcome if we are to meet customer satisfaction and profitability requirements.  Often, new products may require new thinking around production or logistics.  It doesn’t take much effort to understand that there are opportunities for innovation to create new and higher value at every point in the product delivery process.

Different problems yield more readily to different solution paradigms.  Some types of innovation tasks are performed frequently.  Other innovation tasks are only undertaken occasionally.  A designer may need to look at evolutionary changes to an existing offering regularly.  On the other hand, considering options to create an entirely new product line is something that is done much less frequently.  How can knowledge workers keep their head down in weeds of routine innovation and still have facility with the specialized skills that may be called for when they need to pursue a more esoteric project?

Innovation workers have different roles to play in the organization.   The intellectual property analyst performs a very different function than the quality planner.  The design engineer has a different job than the product marketing person.  How do these disparate functions come together harmoniously when a cross-functional team is assembled?

All this variability in the many aspects of innovation leads to the conclusion that organizational über-processes must recognize that innovation skills will not be uniformly distributed in the organization.  Thu, innovation leaders must be leveraged within the enterprise to help knowledge workers bridge the gap between personal innovation skill level and problem solving skill need.  An organizational structure to maintain and optimize the leverage of a mentoring and facilitation network is required.

This can be accomplished in many ways.  A common model is to build an innovation skills pyramid.  At the base of the pyramid, knowledge workers are trained in the fundamentals of innovation.  These include basic skills of problem analysis, solution identification, and concept validation.  At the top of the pyramid, innovation experts are cultivated as highly leveraged corporate resources.  These experts are tasked with leading others through the more intricate processes of innovation that are less frequently traveled as well as cultivating general innovation skills by working with other knowledge workers to help make the entire organization more effective.

Isolation of innovation expertise, the internal outsource group model, is usually not a good approach.  It works against the need to enfranchise all knowledge workers in the innovation agenda.  More effective is to disperse the innovation skills throughout the enterprise and cultivate innovation experts within groups.

Better still is to use a hybrid model.  Build wide spread general innovation competence that is complemented by a horizontal team of innovation experts.  This is a concept that I have seen work very successfully for organizations.  For more on this concept, see “The Case for an Innovation Center of Excellence”.

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