Innovation needs structure too!

When you think of innovation, what comes to mind? Per its definition, innovation is a process of exploration and discovery. So what does this look like? Perhaps you picture a room full of creative, conversing people and ideas flooding sticky notes and whiteboards–which is an accurate depiction of some design thinking workshops. Innovation efforts are a creative and collaborative development to be sure, and they are usually led by mavericks who are experts at tinkering with ideas and concepts to see what works. While this visionary approach can be effective and beneficial to creating change, applying some operational vigor is a key ingredient found on the most successful innovation teams.

The recent Dev Ops and Design Ops movements have demonstrated how the inclusion of strategic operation structures can benefit innovation teams and processes to achieve a successful outcome. Operations are typically associated with execution, i.e. how to scale or apply the opportunities discovered and refined through the innovation process. So what happens when we combine innovation and operations?

Discovering InnovationOps

I recently consulted a large apparel brand that is re-tooling its innovation workflow. The company is innovative at its core, and the founders are constantly exploring new ways to improve athletic performance. They are extremely culturally evolved and have an innovative mindset, which has served them well. The challenge they were seeking our help with was around their meeting systems and how their innovation architecture could be re-imagined to reduce cycle time and drive learnings and act more quickly.

This led me to coin the term InnovationOps: let’s deliberately consider how we can organize and structure our systems for optimum results.

Often, people think of innovation as just ideas. But it is about much more; it’s about all the hard work following the ideas. You have to think about your methodology, write it down, get clear on how you are going to approach it, repeat it, and scale it. To do this, it’s helpful to have a roadmap for navigating the often fuzzy area between ideas and outcomes, as I discuss at length in my book Beyond the Prototype.

Some essential questions that can help identify meeting structures are: What is our system or approach to harvesting ideas? How do we determine if an idea is worth continued exploration? What is our system for crafting the narrative?

One challenge the company had is that its focus on diversity and inclusion had resulted in a phenomenon where everyone is in every meeting, which can actually hinder productivity compared to strategically inviting attendees. So a design constraint was: how do we foster inclusivity while also keeping our meetings small?

This is a really important point. That problem, while generally applicable, was unique to their current situation. Just like user experience focuses on user needs, wants, and goals, when designing for InnovationOps, you must think about the needs, goals, and wants of your business and employees, i.e. the employee experience. Similar to Dev Ops, where there are shared language and tools and best practices, every company approaches it slightly differently.

“Operational innovation is truly deep change, affecting the very essence of a company: how its work is done. The effects ripple outward to all aspects of the enterprise.” –Harvard Business Review

How to incorporate InnovationOps:

Intentionally including InnovationOps is a way to deliberately consider how we can organize and structure our systems for better success rates. The following are ways to do so:

1. Answer the “Who, When, Why, Where”

While this may seem commonsensical at first glance, holes in innovation can be avoided from the very beginning by clearly identifying all aspects and angels of the “what” you want to pursue. Create a solid foundation that is clear and concise for your idea to build from as you pursue the innovation process for optimum efficiency.

2. Construct meeting systems that support your innovation pipeline

In order to develop successful innovation, it is crucial to have a meeting system that best assists its trajectory. This includes: defining a clear purpose for the meeting, creating a detailed agenda, practicing good meeting hygiene by respecting a time schedule, coming prepared with a prototype to jumpstart the process, establishing ground rules at the start of the meeting so attendees know what to expect, and debriefing after the meeting to ensure everyone is on the same page and is aware of next steps. Adhering to a thoughtfully constructed meeting system encourages rapid discovery and timely application of what is learned.

3. Craft a narrative

Storytelling as a means to communicate the meaning and value of innovation is a powerful and constructive method. Presenting data and numbers alone is not as efficient–it lacks vigor, impact, and the opportunity for connection. Creating a narrative begins with pinpointed concrete goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. It should agree with the company’s story by supporting the brand and reflecting its values. Also, incorporating feedback from customers offers real-world insight to support and endorse decisions. Communicate with purpose to ensure that your innovation efforts are transparent and accountable.

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4. Enhance repeatability and ability to scale

When a systems approach is taken, innovation can be made to reliably generate repeatable results. The first step is to create a growth blueprint that outlines the details of innovation, such as the type of innovation being pursued and the goals and guidelines for arriving there. Then, identify the systems needed to translate the raw ideas into tangible products and services. Next, determine the management structure needed to scale innovations to supply growth and impact. Finally, creating and maintaining a culture of innovation–including assigning the leadership and talent needed in the appropriate roles–encourages dependable rapid growth and effective scalability.

5. Choose the correct KPIs

It’s difficult to keep track of progress with inadequate measurement to compare to. Choosing the correct KPIs is imperative to ensure you are moving in the right direction. Appropriate KPIs serve as a guide to direct your efforts and actions toward your goals and they can help people adapt their behavior to stay on track to meet them. It is essential to carefully construct both input and output metrics to track progression and results, including those involved with structures, culture, leadership, and business and products.

6. Keep an open mind

Reflect on the systems and processes you have used in the past and open-mindedly ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. To be successful in the innovation process, it is important to soften rigidity to old beliefs and processes. This generates awareness to unlearn old methods that no longer adequately contribute to the innovation process and creates room to integrate new, more efficient ones. Adopting a growth mindset breeds more opportunities and drives business.

Being aware of and applying an operational mindset to the world of innovation teams and processes makes for more structured and rapid transformation. Consider your InnovationOps and intentionally design meeting systems that serve your innovation goals and business purpose to successfully achieve your desired outcomes.

Want to learn more about InnovationOps?

Voltage Control facilitates design thinking workshops, innovation sessions, and Design Sprints. Please reach out at for a consultation.

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