The toughest part about being a truly innovative company is figuring out how to let new ideas grow—then figuring out which ones are worth further investment. It’s not easy. Many high-potential ideas hit roadblocks or spur questions from leadership before there are answers. There isn’t always a straightforward formula for success.
A few years ago, we started a project to figure out how we might address these challenges by creating a new kind of innovation platform. To start, we spoke to dozens of executives, design leads, product developers, and engineers around the globe—people who work at small startups and large conglomerates in a number of different industries and countries. We were particularly interested in learning more about the ways organizations come up with ideas, how those ideas are evaluated, and how they collaborate within teams and across departments to bring those ideas to market.
This week, we’re launching the culmination of all that work—Shape—and we’re sharing the results of our research. Here are the highlights of what we discovered, plus some practical tips for creating an environment and culture that can foster innovation over and over again.
Most of the organizations we talked to struggled to decide which ideas they should invest in. It’s not because they didn’t have top talent or novel ideas, but because they didn’t have a consistent rubric to help them evaluate and prioritize. That’s a problem that not only slows things down, but can also lead to good ideas never getting the support they need.
On the flip side, we found a very small proportion of cutting-edge internal labs provided a consistent set of metrics for making meritocratic, data-informed choices about which ideas to invest in. Having a clear and fair set of metrics means that employees are better engaged, ideas get a fair shot, and employees can’t blame the organization when ideas are cut.
So how can you set that tone at your organization?
Tools, guidance, and structure are an integral part of any good design practice, but overly prescribed processes restrict creativity. Being too rigid about the timing or order of certain phases can quickly quash team engagement—if phases have to be ultra-quick, people may contribute too superficially; too long and teams lose momentum.
As Jens Uehlecke, Managing Director at Greenhouse Innovation Labs, told us, “My team thrives with just enough structure to help them know that things are going according to plan, where they can still customize the process and get feedback along the way.”
So how do you walk that line between ultra-rigid and maniacally unstructured?
Accessing customer feedback early and often is a crucial part of making evidence-based decisions, but it can also be a major bottleneck. It rarely happens regularly or effectively enough: Survey tools often are difficult to use and have too many features, and sourcing the right audience can be expensive.
Chris Lindland, CEO of the crowd-sourced clothing company Betabrand, told us that after his company created an effective way to gather customer feedback, “It was exciting for designers to get results back and it took the guesswork out of understanding what our customers wanted.”
Here are a handful of ways for you to make feedback-gathering process easier:
Many leaders we spoke with rely on company-wide idea gathering—often in the form of open innovation challenges—to uncover ideas from across the organization. But the transition from idea to implementation is a fragile one. As one innovation challenge manager at a financial institution told us, “There’s often a lack of a clear process and accountability after the challenge is completed and an idea is selected.”
Innovation management tools usually start with a challenge and end once that one idea is chosen. Often, ideas with potential get cut because teams aren’t able to take ownership, or aren’t able to arrive at a version of the idea that would benefit the business.
So how can your organization turn ideas into action?
Relying purely on the judgement of internal stakeholders, employee forums, or upvoting of ideas reinforces groupthink. As a result, a cadre of similar ideas often continue to get approval while new ideas struggle to gain momentum. As Joe Gerber, Managing Director of IDEO CoLab says, “You need to give ideas surface area so that the minority of people in an organization with a similar hunch can explore their passion.”
To protect divergent ideas, make sure to:
After our deep dive into the methods successful companies use to continually innovate—and the problems that stymie others—we folded our best insights into Shape. We hope that it will help make the process of solving big challenges and taking on your company—or the world’s problems—just a bit smoother, by providing access to useful customer feedback, nurturing unexpected ideas, and helping users engage their communities in design.
Illustrations by Cassandra Fountaine