In the past couple of weeks I have been reading up on many of the innovation blogs and communities that are out in the marketplace, including www.managementexchange.com and www.innovationexcellence.com, which have lots of great resources about running innovation programs. However, in many cases they seem to assume that these programs have limitless resources to execute on innovation activities.

Even this cat is punching above its weight. You can do the same!

Even this cat is punching above its weight. You can do the same!

Many of the companies that I work with have large and complex organizational structures, but relatively tiny innovation teams. It is not uncommon to see organizations with up to 50,000 employees, and only 1-3 staff running an innovation program. This isn’t necessarily desirable, but is often just a fact of life for many programs, especially in their infancy stages.

This raises the question about how such a small group of individuals can have any kind of real impact within a company. Unfortunately the answer is not easy or simple. Within any large organization there are always going to be numerous initiatives and groups competing for the attention of your employees, clients and partners. I use the word competing here very deliberately, as there is no doubt in my mind that you are competing against these other initiatives for the attention and actions of your target audience.

For a small group to generate any kind of significant impact it’s essential that you build networks that leverage the scope and scale of your audience. Scale, be it real or perceived, is essential to building the momentum that your program will need to build success that is relevant to your organization’s leadership.

Networks can be structured at different levels within your organization, and will depend in part on the resources at your disposal, the organization’s culture and the existing networks and infrastructure that are already in place.

Some examples of innovation networks include:

  • Steering Committee – This network includes a small group of leaders from across the various business units and corporate support groups that your program both supports, and relies on for their success. This group provides strategic guidance, connects your program to leaders who can direct resources as needed, and gives leaders a sense of ownership for your program’s success.
  • Business Unit Champions – While the membership of a steering committee is at a senior leadership level, Business Unit Champions are a level or two down. The goal of this network is to provide a visible presence for your program within the business units that you support, as well as (when possible) providing program level execution support.
  • Innovation Super Users – These are individuals who are active and consistent supporters of your program from throughout all levels of the organization. These people have a real interest in innovation and are looking for ways to enhance their own career goals, as well as improve the organization. The criteria for selection of these individuals should be carefully decided and consistently managed over time. The goal of these individuals is to utilize them as a force to generate cultural change across your organization.
My kind of punch, complete with tacky canned pineapple rings

My kind of punch, complete with tacky canned pineapple rings

It is worth noting that these are just a few of the networks that you could build. Of course, there are many others, both internal and external that you can consider. This might include client networks, partner networks and even networks dedicated to thought leaders. The opportunities and goals are endless, just depending on what you are trying to achieve.

When thinking about starting any one of these networks, its important to consider how they are going to operate within a strategic framework, which would include an examination of the level of resources it will take you and the innovation program in general to manage. The reality is that these networks do take a lot of time and energy to conceive, grow and manage. If they fall apart, or the individual participants don’t see value to their involvement, questions will arise about the abilities of your program to generate ongoing business value.

In future blog entries I want to talk more about the value of these networks, and specifically how they can be built over time, but in the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions, and I can respond either directly or through a new post.