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An Innovation Centre of Excellence is a business unit that touches the entire organization; collaborating with departments to foster a culture of innovation and establishing internal processes to sustain it. Many organizations that we deal with globally speak well of innovation. However, they do not always walk their talk. While they may post banners to demonstrate their commitment to being innovative and create values around innovation, they often fail to nurture innovation because they do not implement systems and processes that sustain it.

5 Steps to Creating Your Innovation Centre of Excellence

A survey of Corporate Canada’s innovation practices was released on February 3, 2013 by the Conference Board of Canada. Vice-President, Michael Bloom said, “The results suggest pretty strongly that it’s worth managing innovation; you get more bang for your buck.” Nearly half of the 450 organizations acknowledged that they had no “formal innovation management process.” They found that organizationsthat spend lots of time on innovation, but don’t manage it properly, actually do worse, on average, than those who spend less. On the other hand, organizations with well-defined innovation policies and practices show higher long-term growth in revenue, profits and company worth.

There are five steps to creating an Innovation Center of Excellence:

1. Create the Centre of Excellence Innovation Steering Committee

The Innovation Steering Committee will oversee the entire innovation journey. Their members will include a mix of management and staff from different departments, locations and areas of the organization. Generally this team consists of up to eight people; any more makes decision making difficult. Members are sometimes pre-selected by management. Alternatively, management may ask for volunteers or use a combination of both approaches. There are strengths and weaknesses to either method for putting committees together; however, the most important thing is to get this committee together.

The Innovation Steering Committee is on-going; with no mandated end date. This ensures innovation is kept alive. Team members are rotated every year. Some members stay on and others come on. This keeps them fresh and engaged.

Innovation Steering Committee Chairperson
Either the leadership team or the committee selects the Committee Chair. The Committee Chair is not a decision maker; rather, he or she is responsible for scheduling meetings and ensuring that the project process is clear and that there is regular reporting to the leadership team as well as communication to all employees.

Sponsor
The Sponsor is a member of the leadership team and sometimes it is all of the leadership team – depending upon its size.

The Innovation Steering Committee’s First Meeting
The first meeting of the Innovation Steering Committee should include the following agenda:

  • Identifying their roles and responsibilities—for the Chair, Team Members, Sponsor.
  • Creating the rules and protocols of how they’ll manage their on-going work and performance together.
  • Creating a statement of their purpose or mandate. This will identify a clear rationale for the committee and their responsibility to oversee the innovation journey.
  • Determining how they will measure the success of their innovation committee and of innovation within the organization or department.
  • Determining how they will measure the success of their innovation committee and of innovation within the organization or department.

Announcing Innovation
The way you announce your innovation initiative is important as your goal is to engage support from employees. In one organization I worked with, the plan to launch innovation began by holding a town hall meeting for all employees; to get them all engaged. They didn’t know what to call this innovation initiative so for the meeting they simply brought in a big cake with “Project X” on it. The meeting room also had posters advertising, “Project X” on them that they posted on the walls. As employees came into the room there was a lot of “buzz” as they wondered what it was all about.

The President stood up and announced the creation of a Steering Committee whose purpose was to oversee a journey in innovation. He introduced the committee members. The Committee Chairperson explained their mandate and how success was going to be measured. He told employees that there would be regular communications and updates for this initiative. The first task, however, was to “name this program” and he invited employees to contribute their ideas for naming the project.

Afterwards everyone submitted names. The Steering Committee chose the name, “Project Tiger” and used this theme to create a visual for the project. First, they developed a tree with small tigers sitting at its base. The branches on the tree represented strategies that they would develop. As the project progressed, they would have the tigers walk up the tree towards each strategy, indicating completion of each one. In this way, progress was measured and depicted for all to see.

2. Create a Vision for Innovation

Innovation means different things to each organization so your innovation committee will want to clearly define innovation for your organization or department. This includes how you will describe it to your employees in a way that is meaningful to them.

One approach for creating a vision for innovation is for the committee to brainstorm ideas that focus on what the future will look like. I often facilitate innovation committees through this process by asking them to create scenarios to describe their organization or department 5 years into the future. What are some of the things that they would be doing that reflect an innovative organization or department? What would employees and customers be saying about them? How did they get there?
It is important that in creating these scenarios the committee should have no concerns regarding current structures, processes and culture. Their focus must be on the “ideal” future so that they can create a future that reflects the ideal possibilities for themselves.

The outcome of this process is the creation of a vision for innovation for the organization or department. Here is an example of an Innovation Vision for Zodiac Aerospace Evacuation System. It is, “To use creative thinking and unique ideas in fundamentally different ways to create tomorrow’s opportunities.”
The outcome of this process is the creation of a vision for innovation for the organization or department. Here is an example of an Innovation Vision for Zodiac Aerospace Evacuation System. It is, “To use creative thinking and unique ideas in fundamentally different ways to create tomorrow’s opportunities.”

  • To go from incremental to breakthrough improvements
  • To create the next generation products
  • Remain the leader in our field
  • Control our future
  • Gain competitive advantages

Another example of a vision for Innovation is one from the Forestry Services Branch of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Their Innovation Vision is, “To be revitalized in a manner that inspires hope and evolution in order to propel innovative opportunities for growth, prosperity and sustainability.”

3. Develop Strategies for Innovation

Strategies translate your vision into reality; they close the gap between the present and the “ideal” future you depicted in your scenarios. Therefore, you must describe the innovation strategies clearly; so that all Innovation Committee Members understand and accept them.

When developing your strategies it’s a good idea to heed these words of Dr. Edwards Deming, “Nobody forces a company to become innovative. Converting the desire into action requires an intentional initiative, systematically planned and organized like any other important management activity.”

Examples of Innovation Strategies include:

  • Create an environment that encourages and fosters creative thinking across the entire workforce in all facilities and business units in order to create breakthrough technologies.
  • Improve the quality of life in the organization in order to attract people who will continue to foster a culture of innovation for our organization.
  • Assess, measure and adjust continuously in order to strengthen our innovation processes and measure successes.

One of Apple’s innovation strategies is to: “Build Products that are cool, intuitive, and simple to use and provide the most amazing experience.”

4. Create a Culture of Innovation

A recent IBM Global CEO study cited an unsupportive culture as the number one obstacle to innovation. Organizations that have a culture which supports innovation are often customer focussed, value-driven and strategic. They ensure that their operating strategies are developed through interactions with their employees, customers, partners, vendors, suppliers and consultants. They review market trends and identify, through benchmarking, what is necessary to out-perform their competition.
A recent study by the Harris Group indicated that Executives see a culture of innovation as crucial to not only growing their business (95%) and profitability (94%) but also for attracting and keeping talent (86%).

Creating Your Innovation Culture

  1. Create a sub-committee that will report into the Innovation Committee.
  2. Review the definition for innovation and Innovation Centre for Excellence’s vision.
  3. Send an innovation cultural assessment to all employees. This will identify the current culture for innovation within your organization compared to the “ideal” environment, as identified through your vision.
  4. The innovation cultural assessment will help this sub-committee to create the actions required to close the gap between the present and the ideal innovation culture. These might include, for example, training, communication, recognition, hiring, culture, etc.

5. Develop the Innovation Process

A recent Booz Allen study illustrated that the one key characteristic of successful innovators is that they had a rigorous process for managing innovation including:
“A disciplined, stage-by-stage approval process combined with regular measurements of every critical factor, from time and money spent…to the success of new products and services in the market”.

A recent Harris study indicated that “47% report their organization has no team, process or system for vetting new ideas in order to decide which ones to invest in.”

Your innovation steeromg committee will create an innovation process that includes:

  • Generating employee ideas by asking employees to address questions, concerns, issues, challenges, etc. to get some thinking going.
  • Encouraging employees to capture their ideas in their tablets, mobiles, computer, paper, etc. and sending these to the innovation committee.
  • Combining all of these ideas into groups of similar, related ideas but not eliminating any.
  • Creating Innovation Teams and giving them groups of these innovations to take through the innovation process.
    Providing on-going training, coaching and support to these innovation teams.

Creativity is useless without execution. Ideally, the organization’s culture of innovation will motivate employees to create new ideas and ensure that they get the support they need to use the innovation process and implement their visions.

Success in innovation is often determined by who can best manage the drudgery. The creative process starts with the visions and ideas. Next, you determine whether, if the brilliant idea worked, would it be worth doing? Then, brainstorming the ideas – that’s the exhilarating part; it is the most exciting, fun, creative part of innovation. But it’s also the easiest.
The real work comes after this stage. Reducing the ideas into something that can be researched, analyzed, tested, managed, etc. That’s the drudgery part of innovation and this is where people often need pressure and encouragement to keep going. All of the energy used to create the ideas is often lost through the next stages of the innovation process. It takes time and commitment. But this is where real innovation happens. It is truly the most exciting part of the process.

Create Your Innovation Centre of Excellence

According to Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt, “If you don’t try, you don’t know. We tried; I and you don’t even remember the names of the products that failed. That’s the secret of innovation”.

Helping your organization to achieve more innovations, to create the culture to support innovative thinking and to manage the innovation process is a major undertaking. It can seem daunting to know where to begin. However, the most important first step is just that – to take that first step. It is a large and exciting change process. Even a small initiative can help to demonstrate the possibilities of a more robust effort. Lead your organization through this journey. I have led others through this journey and you can too! So go ahead; create your Innovation Centre of Excellence. It will help your organization realize its innovation strategic imperative.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications. For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca