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Corporate innovation needs a shakeup, here’s a blueprint

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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, a few of us at IDEO started a project to figure out how we might address these challenges by creating a new kind of innovation platform. To start, our team 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 they evaluate those ideas and how they collaborate within teams and across departments to bring those ideas to market.

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.

1. Leaders are attracted to a scientific and objective approach to evaluating ideas, but very few organizations actually practice it.

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. A clear and fair set of metrics means better-engaged employees and fair shots for ideas, meaning employees can’t blame the organization if their idea doesn’t win out.

So how can you set that tone at your organization?

  • Choose your most important metrics and be consistent. This ensures stakeholders on your team can make evidence-based decisions, giving every idea a chance based on merit.
  • Empower decision makers to say no. Once they have the data in front of them, they need frameworks to make decisions based on customer feedback — not internal bias.
  • Make sure you have a diverse crowd evaluating your ideas. Bring together people from inside and outside your organization’s walls to help you see your blind spots.

2. Design and innovation teams need to know when to apply the right methods — but don’t force them into a linear process.

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?

  • Don’t focus on a single, linear process. Empower your team to use the right approach and tool at the right time, and document them clearly.
  • Encourage teams to re-evaluate their method to stay at the cutting edge of design, research and technology.

3. Organizations struggle to access customer feedback because it requires a lot of time, resources and expertise.

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 crowdsourced 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 the feedback-gathering process easier:

  • Communicate a process to conduct qualitative and quantitative research. Provide guidance for creating customer discussion guides and rubrics for selecting which customers to talk to.
  • Let people across the company know how they can talk to a customer directly. Most tech companies even have the technology to make it happen in just hours — all while following privacy guidelines.

4. Ideas sourced from across the company often lose steam because there’s no pathway for them to make an impact on the business.

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?

  • Cluster ideas based on the problems they solve. This helps highlight business value, and from there, you can prioritize based on each idea’s potential.
  • Don’t set a finite deadline on your long-term strategic goals. Leave the door open for new ideas that relate to your strategic priorities. Periodically sponsor the ideas that float to the top; avoid one-and-done competitions.
  • Help ideas live beyond the scope of a challenge. Don’t expect everyone to perfect their idea during a short timeframe. Encourage teams with promising ideas to keep getting feedback. Create clear and transparent opportunities for those ideas to be re-evaluated.

5. Passionate minorities need opportunities to do work that challenges the status quo.

Relying purely on the judgment 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:

  • Help passionate people identify each other and build off of each other’s work. Use internal channels to help people broadcast their ideas, hypotheses and expertise across the organization.
  • Bypass organizational bias with customer feedback. Don’t require internal ideal vetting or approval before any customer gets to see ideas. Include customer feedback as an early and integrated part of managing your innovation pipeline.

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 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

Republished with permission, this article first appeared on IDEO’s Octopus blog.

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