Monday, July 21, 2008

Sponsors are critical to innovation success

The more work I do with customers and innovators, the more evident it becomes - the number one driver for innovation success is a clear sponsor for an idea. Your team can have lots of ideas, many great ideas, a robust system for selection and evaluation, a Stage-Gate process, a significant innovation portfolio, idea campaigns and a culture that sustains innovation. Yet, at the end of the day, any idea that is not sponsored and commercialized is really just pearls before swine.

Let's get down to a few basics - any firm can innovate occasionally, and most can accomplish some forms of incremental innovation. That is, a new idea to extend an existing product or service is accepted and swept into an upcoming product release. What's also clear is that any idea that is not on the product roadmap, or requires much more risk or investment, is much more likely to fall by the wayside in the transition from idea to new product. There is simply too much risk to adopting an idea that your team or organization wasn't requesting and wasn't a part of during the ideation process.

This is one area where open suggestion systems fall apart. Yes, it is easy for many people to submit ideas, and some of them may actually be beneficial. But if no one is willing to adopt and sponsor that idea as part of their new product or service roadmap, few open suggestion ideas will be adopted and commercialized. Open Suggestion models ultimately fall apart because of two big concerns: first, there's little strategic alignment between the ideas and the needs of the business and second, there are few line of business leaders who will adopt the ideas and convert them into commercial products or services.

So, what's needed and what's the "right model"? Well, using our two whipping boys - Google and Apple - we can see that there are several potentially successful models. Apple's model is top down strategic sponsorship - what Steve wants, Steve gets. Few firms can mimic this approach because few have the strategic vision and "guts" it takes to dictate these large bets. But every success (and a few failures) have had Steve's sponsorship and fingerprints. Conversely, Google places hundreds of small bets, and the individual or team that originated the idea must acquire sponsorship from product managers or others to mature the idea. There's no one clear sponsor, instead many different line of business leaders can be a sponsor.

When a firm uses idea campaigns to generate ideas, there's another potential sponsor. The business leader who initiates the campaign should be willing to become the sponsor for any idea that's generated within the idea campaign. After all, he or she was able to define a problem or opportunity that needed to be addressed and was presented with a range of ideas. If the person or team who originates an idea campaign is not willing to adopt or commercialize the ideas, then the process is just an exercise.

We have a concept called "strong sponsorship" or "weak sponsorship". What this means is that an idea may have a sponsor or likely adopter who is seeking more insight and maturity around an idea, and when the idea is "ready" he or she will bring that idea back into their business. Many successful ideas have strong sponsors who are willing to take a risk and implement an idea - often they just need some ownership and visibility to the idea. Conversely, an idea that is offered up but has no clear owner or sponsor will often lag in an idea database. Even very good ideas which don't clearly belong to a group or attract owners or sponsors won't be converted. When this happens, everyone understands the value of the ideas left behind in the idea database and becomes frustrated at the firm's inability to commercialize good ideas.

In the end it will all come down to which ideas gain sponsors, and who is willing to adopt and implement the ideas, converting them into new products and services.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:28 AM

32 Comments:

OpenID themicrocosm said...

Steve Jobs is an icon to renegade technological guerilla warfare. There is a war on out there that he would be perfect for: http://themicrocosm.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/apple-iwant-a-car/

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Drew Boyd said...

Jeff, great post as usual. I agree sponsors help innovation succeed. I would suggest that their role is more than just helping support ideas after the ideation exercise. They are also critical before ideation. A good sponsor makes sure the right team is assembled, with the right resources, using an effective innovation process, and focusing on the right business issue. A sponsor who does this is also more likely to support ideas that come out of the intiative.

6:32 PM  
Blogger John said...

Jeff, great post. I'm adding your blog to my list to keep watching. The folks at USC's Stevens Institute turned me onto it.

You might agree that any entrepreneurial team that manages to get a small amount of time to prove an initial case is best competing in the marketplace for resources and sponsorship (more of a Google/IBM approach)? Many "innovation" teams I have worked with become disillusioned when they can't convince someone to sponsor their idea. I say, "Embrace this! If you can't convince a potential sponsor, you either haven't met the right one, or your story isn't there yet." The job of my program is to ensure they meet all the potential sponsors they can find, but we have to let them fail if they convince none of them to take up their cause.

One thing I'm starting to report on http://www.thethreepercent.com is the problem with cases where a sponsor took on a project not out of cold, hard business sense but because they felt obliged to do so. Would you agree sometimes you must be 'cruel to be kind'?

2:22 PM  
Blogger David said...

Are not sponsors limited, the number becoming a constraint to how scaleable innovation is in the organization?

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