9 best practices for better innovation

November 11, 2020

Originally published on CIO.

Following these steps for prioritizing ideas will help you seize the most promising opportunities.

As we move into 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating digital transformation and innovation across all industries. Many CIOs are stepping up and expanding the purview of their teams from a focus on innovation for IT to innovation on behalf of their entire organization.

Whether you are innovating simply to survive, to thrive, or both, here are nine best practices designed to help CIOs and their innovation teams incorporate more quality, consistency, and repeatability in their ideation efforts:

Start with an innovation framework and council

The first step is to establish an innovation program and framework (i.e. a process) that can help take promising ideas from concept to value across the innovation pipeline. Your innovation team may range in size from just a single individual to tens or even hundreds of staff.

One popular approach is a small, dedicated team connected to a larger, volunteer team located across the business. If you’re taking this organization-wide approach, be sure to establish an innovation council with members sourced from across the business who can serve as stakeholders, sponsors, and champions. The innovation program, framework, and council are an essential first step to add formality, structure, and legitimacy to your ideation efforts.  

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Use multiple innovation activities for sourcing ideas

When it comes to sourcing ideas, there are numerous approaches, including innovation campaigns, workshops, hackathons, challenges, contests, and everything in between. A best practice is to pursue multi-modal ideation whereby you source ideas using multiple activities operating with different objectives, target audiences, and cadences. For example, you might run month-long innovation campaigns across the entire organization as well as one- to two-day event-based workshops with a more targeted set of participants. All of these approaches can be conducted entirely virtually.  

Use a course-grained filter right-sized for your ideation approach

Depending upon your stage within the innovation framework or pipeline, you’ll want to have both course-grained filters and fine-grained filters for idea prioritization. If you’re running an innovation workshop with perhaps 10-25 attendees, for example, start with a course-grained filter with four criteria to help take 50-100 ideas down to a prioritized short list of the most promising 15-20 ideas. At this stage, four voting criteria give you the right level of insight to take ideas to the next level. Too many voting criteria and participants will be overwhelmed (imagine voting on 50 ideas with six voting criteria each); too few and there are insufficient insights to make decisions. At a later stage in the framework, with more investment and risk on the line, add more rigor with a finer-grained filter of 8-10 voting criteria as well as a formal business case.

Balance your voting criteria across business benefit and ease of implementation

Once you’ve decided on the number of voting criteria, you’ll want to create a balance between those that relate to benefit and those that relate to cost. A best practice is to define an equal number of criteria for each side. An example might be financial value and strategic fit for the business benefit side and time and cost to implement and maintain and project risk and complexity for the cost side. If you are in the public sector, you can also substitute mission value in place of financial value to better reflect your evaluation criteria.  

Let participants vote individually after hearing all elevator pitches

By letting participants vote individually you can get a true sense of the consensus of the group as well as the ability to see any divergence in opinions. By hearing elevator pitches prior to voting, you can also help socialize the ideas among the group so that they understand the reason and rationale behind each pitch. An additional secret to running effective innovation workshops and ideation sessions is to go in with an agreed upon methodology and approach so that participants can focus on the ideas and their merits without second guessing the workshop approach itself.

Explain your voting criteria with a participant guide

Create a participant guide to help define the voting criteria and address commonly asked questions. If you’re voting on a scale of low/medium/high, for example, be sure to define each of these terms for each specific voting criteria. You may want to use color coding to help make things even clearer. For example, it’s easy to assume that 5 for financial value means high, but what about project risk and complexity? Does 5 mean high risk and complexity (i.e., a hard thing to do) or does 5 mean the idea scores well in this category and risk and complexity is low? Clarifying definitions like this within a participant guide can save valuable time during the actual session and ensures quality and consistency in future workshops.

Analyze voting results with a cost-benefit matrix

An excellent way to analyze results from voting can be via a cost-benefit matrix or project prioritization matrix. Since you’ve already captured two voting criteria for the benefit side of the equation and two for the cost side, you can now easily sum each of the two criteria together and plot them on the matrix. This can typically be done within your own ideation software or in Excel. Benefits of this approach include the ability to see clusters of ideas that can be combined into a broader initiative as well as identify quick wins (i.e., high business impact, easy to do) versus must-haves (i.e., high business impact, harder to do). The separation of ideas into quick wins and must haves also lends naturally to recognizing ideas for the near-term and longer-term implementation roadmap respectively.   

Disposition ideas to minimize drop points post-workshop

If not dispositioned right after the innovation workshop, promising ideas can languish and experience delays in implementation or never be realized. To prevent this, be sure to assign someone (e.g., your workshop facilitator or other member of the innovation team) to disposition the ideas arising from workshops and other ideation activities and hold them accountable. This dispositioning determines the appropriate next step for each of these ideas in terms of whether to place in the parking lot (e.g. to monitor an emerging technology or trend), to investigate further, to develop a business case, to combine with other ideas, or jump straight to a pilot or proof of concept. This is part of the heavy lifting in terms of managing innovation, but it’s a vital step in the journey.  

Save design thinking for later in the process

While design thinking is always the flavor of the month for any innovation activity, it is important to pick the right tool for the job. If you’re working at the front end of the innovation pipeline, attempting to source tens or hundreds of ideas, stick with traditional tools and approaches and save the design thinking for when it’s time to work through how a specific solution should look and feel.

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