Connecting with the Power: Effectively Linking Corporate Innovation Programs With Business Units

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Anthony Ferrier

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October 3, 2013

In working with Fortune 500 organizations, I’m always surprised at how small the innovation teams are. Where there might be 90,000 employees, we will often find only 2-8 FTEs supporting and leading corporate innovation programs.

My discussions with these groups are often centered around achieving cultural change within an organization and defining goals, but let’s be honest. Changing the culture of a large organization is incredibly difficult, and takes clear direction, consistent application of resources, and visible leadership support. It’s tough!

So, how can a small group truly enhance the innovative culture of such a large organization? Rather, how can they drive a culture of innovation at larger companies, both effectively and economically?

A Network for Change

I can give you one answer: build clearly defined and active networks across the organization that support your corporate program’s goals, and provide linkages back to the business units, where the real power within these organizations often resides. Too often, I see groups that are happy to sit within the “ivory tower” of corporate HQ, churning out a series of activities that don’t drive any value or change across the organization. Trust me, you can make these things look good on paper, but you really need that Business Unit (BU) ownership to drive cultural change, and ultimately, real value.

There are several types of networks that innovation program leaders can develop and manage across their organization; I’ve talked about a few of them in previous articles on my blog, most recently around Innovation Super Users, who consistently demonstrate active support of innovation lead activities.

However, let’s focus on developing and maintaining a network of Business Unit Champions that act as regular contact points and visible, accessible leaders within the businesses. These individuals can be important resources to assist with implementing your innovation program vision across the organization.

Thinking it Through

When looking to build this new resource for your program, you might want to consider the following approach to development:

  • Assessment and vision. At first, it’s important to assess how healthy your organization’s culture of innovation really is, and see what resources and networks are already available that might support the goals of your program. In the case of Business Unit Champions, look at other initiatives and programs to see how they’ve linked successfully, or unsuccessfully, into the BU structure. Learn from their efforts. Additionally, it’s important to develop a high-level vision of what you’re trying to achieve with these champions, what buy-in you need, and what’s in it for the participants and their bosses. By developing a high-level framework for these groups, you build a strategy for success.
  • Planning. Once the strategy is in place, you can start taking a more detailed approach to planning out resources, actions, and activities that support this network. Consider, as part of this network, the specific actions that are necessary to engage, empower, and direct your BU Champions towards it. Some activities might include regular group meetings, development of relevant “thoughtware” (for placement in internal communication channels), leadership roles in activities directed towards junior staff members, advocates in BU-specific meetings, stewards of specific innovation activities, support of tracking and reporting efforts, etc. The list is endless!
  • Launch and Engage. Once you have the plans in place, it’s time to launch. Get out there and start building up that network. And sure — start with a bang, but don’t use all your steam in the early run. This is a long-term proposition and you want your BU Champions to be actively sustaining your efforts over time. Set up a regular meeting with the BU Champions, potentially including some of the senior sponsors of your program for the kick-off. Over time, look to educate the BU Champions on your program, solicit their input to your efforts and assign them specific roles and responsibilities.
  • ROI/ Idea Execution. It’s good to define and build a network of BU Champions to support your innovation program and goals, but what’s especially important is to have a network that actively drives towards enhancing the level of ROI that your program generates and tracks. The BU Champions can be positioned as active supporters of any reporting infrastructure to help you build within the businesses.

Even more importantly, these champions can help push innovative ideas across the organization. Some sample activities include acting as reviewers and approvers of ideas generated from ideation activities, allocating a funding pool to support innovative ideas that they think are most important to the business, or helping allocate more junior level employees towards the implementations of ideas, etc.

By building a strategic framework around these innovation networks, especially with a group as important as BU Champions, you’ll be able to effectively leverage the value generated by your program.

 

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