The Most Common Sponsor Pitfalls in Designing Innovation Challenges

Over the years I’ve had the fortune to work with some amazing people to help design innovation challenges that engage communities in their resolution. Guiding challenge sponsors and their teams diligently through the design process is an important step in the path towards a successful outcome. Whether engaging everyone in the business on how to build the future or a distributed group of experts on a critical problem, the effort to design the challenge question is a worthwhile investment for any sponsor who wants innovative answers. This might seem an obvious statement but getting sponsors and their teams to engage fully in the design process in one of the most common hurdles to overcome in executing an innovation challenge. So I thought I would share the 3 most common sponsor pitfalls that I have experienced whilst undertaking the innovation challenge designing process.

“Just Open The Idea Management Tool” – this is one of my favourites and most common scenarios presented by very senior leaders or sponsors with impending deadlines. Whilst the statement is the extreme, I do see this response in some shape or form where the challenge is usually too high-level, with little structure and overall, poorly defined. You can usually spot this scenario as the conversation with the sponsors starts with the tool, how it works, what cool web 2.0 things can be turned on, and importantly how it can be made to look pretty.

“I want this live by Monday”

Now all of these things are important design steps, however, when they become the only ones at the exclusion of any real design effort on the challenge question itself, the resulting outcome is usually weak. Typically we see are a lot of ideas out-of-scope, which are either too big, small, irrelevant to the business or not focused on its immediate needs. This is the equivalent of a meeting invite with only the subject matter completed, with no agenda or support materials to read in preparation and definitely no stated outcome. We all know what those meeting are like in comparison to those that are more diligently prepared and presented. Interestingly we have all at some point setup those subject matter only meetings, but they are either done in hurry or to a group who all know why they are being brought together. However, when it’s a important meeting, with multiple stakeholders, it requires a good construct. Innovation Challenges are the same. As you go out to the crowd you need to support them with enough information so they can understand what is required from them. It requires taking a divergent business need, such as those for new products/services, and designing a convergent construct through the innovation challenge. Through convergence we can focus the crowds’ ideas by providing information such as potential markets, technologies, consumer insights and unmet needs.

“The Silver Bullet Innovation Challenge” – Executing an innovation challenge can take considerable effort from the design preparation, corporate communication, platform implementation and finally in the capture, selection and implementation of ideas. Consequently, we run into the second scenario of getting all the ideas we need on everything at the same time. Sponsors who fall into this trap are concerned that they don’t have the time to design this more than once and they certainly don’t want the crowd spending any more effort on innovation than this one occasion. This results in a challenge question that asks, what are the new products/services and business models we should create and how can we cut costs and keep our bottom-line in check?

Solving your big hairy problems

Whilst these are all valid innovation challenges themselves, putting them together compromises the design of critical components like the idea form and review process. Of course you can combine them, I have seen it done, but it creates a compromise and typically results in a lack of precision around what is captured and selected. The selected ideas usually require a lot more work to refine them and determine their suitability for progression. In addition, the majority of ideas that do progress are those on cost and few if any new product/services/business models ones advance. This is usually for two reasons. Firstly, cost ideas are easier to implement and at the point of capture are more sufficiently developed. Secondly, although product/service/business model ideas take more resource to develop the sponsor did not have any real ambition to advance them and was more worried/curious to see if anyone had a great breakthrough idea, which if it emerged, they might fund.

“The 42 Innovation Challenge” – The final scenario is a variation of the first and refers to an innovation challenge where the sponsor is struggling to define what they want, so rather than work through the design process they leave both its interpretation and that of the answers to the crowd. To have a mystery at both ends of the investigation, as Sherlock Holmes once postulated, is too difficult a case to investigate.

“The ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” – Douglas Adams

This usually occurs when the divergent strategic need is so broad or new to the business that any concrete areas to investigate have yet to emerge or be tacitly defined. It also occurs when the sponsor and their team just haven’t really sat down and thought it through, either because they don’t know how to begin or more commonly think they all know what it is, even when they struggle to coherently state it. It typically results in low idea numbers of poor quality that do not meet the criterion for execution. A sponsor who follows this path often concludes that only their “experts” understand them when they ask for ideas and, therefore, they rarely go back to the crowd for answers. Actually their experts usually engage with sponsors first to deeply understand their question or develop an understanding themselves before attempting to answer it. Which, interestingly the crowd can also do, but I will save that for another post.

In conclusion, it is critical to the success of innovation challenges that sponsors and their teams properly engage in the design process and don’t attempt, what initially may seem as being efficient, short-cuts to the answers. The only short-cuts they create are to poor outcomes that require additional effort post idea capture to refine and improve those collected, as they are typically not of sufficient quantity and quality to immediately take forwards.

4 thoughts on “The Most Common Sponsor Pitfalls in Designing Innovation Challenges

  1. Matt,

    Great post! Different from al the innovation blah, blah, blah…:-) I’m curious to learn more about the design process as you mention it here. What is the design process? What does it entail?

    Congratulations on your new blog! It’s great.

  2. Mariana,

    thanks for the first comment. You get the prize next time we meet at a bar! Regarding the design process – that could be a good future post. I’m building up quite a hopper of things to share – although this one might be more of a 1:1 at the aforementioned bar.



  3. Hi Matt,

    Great blog! Being a Douglas Adams fan I particularly enjoyed the “42” challenge.

    I look forward to your future posts and learning more about how to make innovation a repeatable process in a corporate organisation.


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