First Things First: Strategic Selection of the First Innovation Challenge

One of the key design stages in the innovation challenge process is the selection of the first challenge. This strategic decision occurs during a pilot or the first phase of a new program. In both scenarios it is critical to select the right innovation challenge as companies look to gain momentum and buy-in to this new process.  With pilots, this can require further financial and/or leadership support, whilst program launches are usually looking to build a crowd and gain additional innovation challenge sponsors for their pipeline.  Consequently, a lot can ride on selecting the first innovation challenge.

Before selecting an innovation challenge it is best to take a step back and define and shape what success will look like. Success criteria can be divided into the program/pilot and innovation challenge goals.  Defining program goals is a whole topic in itself, which I will add to the list of future posts, but it will include things like types of innovation challenges, number of challenges, awareness and adoption of the program, outcomes etc.  For a single innovation challenge, success is usually defined by a combination of three basic metrics, which are:

  • Number of ideas
  • Number of participants
  • Return of Investment (ROI)

The Best Pilot Innovation Challenge Hand

Context in defining success here is critical. If the pilot or initial innovation challenge needs to highlight lots of interest, we need to be inviting the largest audience possible at this stage. If it needs a strong and measurable ROI, we need to focus on a short-term operational innovation area of the business. Finally, if lots of ideas are required the focus should be on an innovation challenge that everyone understands and where many possible solutions can be easily shared.  Of course the one we want, especially in pilots, is the one that maximises all three metric aces.

Following on from success criteria it is important to understand how ideas will be advanced. It is great getting lots of good ideas but it is really bad not being able to do anything with them. How ideas are taken forwards will have a considerable influence on how the innovation challenge is designed, from the question asked to the review criteria. An innovation challenge should never go live without this process in place. This is a common trap in promoting a challenge that ticks all three basic metric boxes but actually has no clear path for the ideas to be implemented and results in a fishing expedition innovation challenge.  If this happens, the crowd will soon loose interest and faith in the program that is trying to be established and therefore this trap must be avoided.

Beware of Spoof Sponsors

All innovation challenges should have a sponsor. Whilst a central team may devise the process, they rarely own the outcome or have the right level of influence to promote its existence to a crowd. The sponsor is therefore critical and usually someone fairly senior, recognised and whom the crowd will positively respond towards their promotional requests. At the beginning of a program and particularly for pilots, it is good to seek out sponsors who have a maverick/entrepreneurial leadership style and are perhaps a new dynamic leader to the business. Importantly the sponsor should strategically own the innovation challenge and its outcome with the resource to support the process and implementation of the best ideas.  If they are not able to provide this clarity and support, they are unlikely to be the Sponsor for this innovation challenge. Running an innovation challenge with the wrong sponsor can lead to a variety of complications, not least finding the ideas received fail to make it through to implementation.

Imagining the Future is Highly Motivating

Selecting the challenge itself always requires context but there are some general guidelines to follow.  Firstly, the innovation challenge has to be relevant to the business. Asking for ideas that are not required is a waste of everyone’s time. Secondly, it requires a strong level of affinity with the crowd.  Challenges that capture the imagination create high levels of engagement. Thirdly, it requires broad appeal, with the topic being presented.  Asking a specialised innovation challenge to everyone creates a miss-match and can loose attention next time around.  In pilot/first innovation challenge mode it is important to provide a topic everyone understands and can contribute towards or at least match it to the invited audience.   Finally, the innovation challenge has to benefit from the on-line engagement process. This could be as obvious as the crowd dynamics but could also include change management benefits, dispersed expertise and data management. In pilot-mode we also need to ensure the benefits from economies of scale from the audience.  Pilots are not about testing this with 100 people.  For any project with an IT component, testing is important. However, an innovation challenge pilot is not really testing the technology as much as it is the people.  Ideally the crowd needs to include as many people as possible to demonstrate their full range of dynamics and behaviours in solving innovation challenges.  This will provide useful and deep insights into organisation behaviours, which will aid the designing of a fuller program. It is important to note that it can and is regularly done with smaller crowds. In these instances different processes and game mechanics are used to successfully create a valued result.

Finally, beware of stepping out with a breakthrough innovation challenge for the first engagement.  These are a passionate source of innovation challenges but require considerable time to design the engagement and resources to deliver the ideas.  In addition, they do not deliver an immediate ROI and by their very nature, the failure rate of the ideas generated is high. Whilst most leaders desire big breakthrough innovations the truth is that they have to balance this with short-term wins. In pilot/first innovation challenge mode this needs careful consideration. Programs that deliver are funded. Successful ones are expanded.  High risks ones require this balance and/or tolerance to the long-term development cycles and failure rates. If a breakthrough innovation challenge is selected for a pilot or program launch these factors need managing.  In a program this can be balanced with a following operation innovation challenge. For a pilot, the success criteria will need adjusting and if an ROI can be calculated it will be a rough forecast at best.

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