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Creating an Innovation Centre of Excellence

Creating an Innovation Centre of Excellence

© ICMCI and Michael Stanleigh CMC


An Innovation Centre of Excellence is a business unit that reaches throughout the organization.  Our global experience with a variety of organizations indicates that most of them speak well about innovation but lack the critical elements required to say they truly have an Innovation Centre of Excellence.  They post banners and create values around innovation yet lack the culture to foster innovation and process to sustain innovation. 

A survey of Corporate Canada’s innovation practices was release on February 3, 2013 by the Conference Board of Canada.  Vice-President Michael Bloom said:  “The results suggest pretty strongly that it’s worth managing innovation.”  You get more bang for your buck”.  Nearly half of the 450 organizations acknowledged they had no “formal innovation management process”.  They found that organizations that spend lots of time on innovation, but don’t manage it properly, actually do worse, on average, than those who spend less.  On the other hand, organizations with well-defined innovation policies and practices show higher long-term growth in revenue, profits and company worth.

An Innovation Centre of Excellence is a business unit that reaches throughout the organization.  Our global experience with a variety of organizations indicates that most of them speak well about innovation but lack the critical elements required to say they truly have an Innovation Centre of Excellence.  They post banners and create values around innovation yet lack the culture to foster innovation and process to sustain innovation. 

A survey of Corporate Canada’s innovation practices was release on February 3, 2013 by the Conference Board of Canada.  Vice-President Michael Bloom said:  “The results suggest pretty strongly that it’s worth managing innovation.”  You get more bang for your buck”.  Nearly half of the 450 organizations acknowledged they had no “formal innovation management process”.  They found that organizations that spend lots of time on innovation, but don’t manage it properly, actually do worse, on average, than those who spend less.  On the other hand, organizations with well-defined innovation policies and practices show higher long-term growth in revenue, profits and company worth.

There are 5 steps to creating your Innovation Centre of Excellence
1. Create the Centre of Excellence Innovation Committee

The Innovation Committee will oversee the entire journey.  Their members will include a mix of management and staff from different departments, locations, etc. within the organization.  Generally the team should consist of no more than 8.  Otherwise decision making is difficult.  Members are sometimes pre-selected by management or they ask for volunteers or use a combination of both approaches.  There are strengths and weaknesses among them all.  The most important thing is to get this committee together. 

The chair is selected either by the Leadership team or by the committee.  They are not a decision maker.  They are responsible for ensuring the meetings are scheduled, their process is clear, they have regular reporting to the leadership team and communication to all employees.

The Sponsor is either a member of the leadership team and sometimes it is all of the leadership team – depending upon their size.

The Innovation Committee is on-going.  They have no mandated end date.  This ensures innovation is kept alive.  Team members are rotated every year.  Some members stay on and others come on.  This keeps them fresh and engaged. 

The Innovation Committee’s First Meeting will include:

  • Identifying their roles and responsibilities i.e.; of the Chair, the team members, the Sponsor, etc.

  • Creating the rules/protocols how they’ll manage their on-going work and performance together.

  • Creating a statement of their purpose or mandate.  This will identify a clear rationale for the committee and their responsibility to oversee the innovation journey.

  • Determining how they will measure the success of their innovation committee and of innovation within the organization/department.

  • Creating a plan on how to launch innovation into the organization/department.

The plan to launch innovation for one organization resulted in their decision to start by holding an all employee town hall meeting.  They didn’t know what to call this innovation initiative so they brought in a big cake with Project X on it.  The room had posters saying Project X.  There was a lot of buzz in the room.  The President stood up and explained what they had done so far – create a Steering Committee whose purpose was to oversee a journey in innovation.  He introduced the committee members.  The committee chair explained their mandate and how success will be measured.  He advised that there’ll be regular communication and updates but their first request was to “name this initiative”.  Afterwards everyone submitted names.  They chose Project Tiger.  A tree was created and small tigers were put at its base.  The branches represented strategies they’ll develop and the tigers will walk up the tree towards each one so they can measure progress. 

2. Create a Vision for Innovation
Innovation means different things to each organization so your innovation committee will define innovation for your organization/department.  This includes how you will describe it to your employees in a way that is meaningful to them.

One approach to creating a vision for innovation is for the committee to brainstorm ideas focused on what the future will look like.  I often have them create scenarios to describe their organization/department 5 years into the future.  What are some of the things that they’re doing that reflect an innovative organization/department?  What are employees and customers saying?  How did they get there?  It is important that in creating these scenarios they have no concerns regarding current structures, processes and culture.  The focus is on the ideal future.  They’ll create a future that reflects the ideal possibilities.

The outcome is the creation of a vision for innovation for the organization/department.  For example, Zodiac Aerospace Evacuation System’s Vision is “To use creative thinking and unique ideas in fundamentally different ways to create tomorrow’s opportunities. “   This was followed with statements that help employees understand why innovation at this time:

  • To go from incremental to breakthrough improvements

  • To create the next generation products

  • Remain the leader in our field

  • Control our future

  • Gain competitive advantages

The Forestry Services Branch of the Government of Newfoundland/Labrador created a vision:
“To be revitalized in a manner that inspires hope and evolution in order to propel innovative opportunities for growth, prosperity and sustainability”

3. Develop Strategies for Innovation
Strategies translate your vision into reality.  They close the gap between the present and the future you designed in your scenarios.  Innovation strategies must be described, understood and accepted by all Innovation Committee members. 

When developing your strategies Dr. Edwards Deming said:
“Nobody forces a company to become innovative.  Converting the desire into action requires an intentional initiative, systematically planned and organized like any other important management activity.”

Examples of Innovation Strategies include:

  • Create an environment that encourages and fosters creative thinking across the entire workforce in all facilities and business units in order to create breakthrough technologies.

  • Improve the quality of life in the organization in order to attract people who will continue to foster a culture of innovation for our organization.

  • Assess, measure and adjust continuously in order to strengthen our innovation processes and measure successes.

One of Apple’s innovation strategies is:  “Build Products that are cool, intuitive, simple to use and provide the most amazing experience.”

4. Create a Culture of Innovation
A recent IBM Global CEO study cited an unsupportive culture as the number one obstacle to innovation.    Organizations that have a culture which supports innovation are often customer focussed, value-driven and strategic.   They ensure that their operating strategies are developed through interactions with their employees, customers, partners, vendors, suppliers and consultants.   They review market trends and identify, through benchmarking, what is required to out-perform their competition.

A recent study by the Harris Group indicated that Executives see a culture of innovation as crucial to not only growing their business (95%) and profitability (94%) but also for attracting and keeping talent (86%). 

Creating Your Innovation Culture

  1. Create a sub-committee that will report into the Innovation Committee.

  2. Review the definition for innovation and Innovation Centre for Excellence’s vision.

  3. Send an innovation cultural assessment to all employees.  This will identify the current culture for innovation within your organization compared to the “ideal” environment, as identified through your vision.

  4. The innovation cultural assessment will help this sub-committee to create the actions required to close the gap between the present and the ideal innovation culture. These might include, for example, training, communication, recognition, hiring, culture, etc. 

5. Develop the Innovation Process
A recent Booz Allen study illustrated that the one key characteristic of successful innovators is that they had a rigorous process for managing innovation including:
“A disciplined, stage-by-stage approval process combined with regular measurements of every critical factor, from time and money spent…to the success of new products and services in the market”.

A recent Harris study indicated that “47% report their organization has no team, process or system for vetting new ideas in order to decide which ones to invest in.”

Your innovation committee will create an innovation process that includes:

  • Generating employee ideas by sending to employees questions, concerns, issues, challenges, etc. to get some thinking going. 

  • Encouraging employees to capture their ideas in their iPad, mobiles, computer, paper, etc.  and sending these to the innovation committee.

  • Combining all of these ideas into groups of similar, related ideas but not eliminating any.

  • Creating Innovation Teams and giving them groups of these innovations to take through the innovation process.

  • Providing on-going training, coaching and support to these innovation teams.

Creativity is useless without execution.  Ideally, the organization’s culture of innovation will motivate employees to create new ideas and ensure that they get the support they need to use the innovation process and implement their visions.

Success in innovation is often determined by who can best manage the drudgery.  The creative process starts with the visions and ideas.  Next you determine whether, if the brilliant idea worked, would it be worth doing.  Brainstorming the ideas - that’s the exhilarating part.  It is the most exciting, fun, creative part of innovation.  But it’s also the easiest.

The real work comes after this stage.  Reducing the ideas into something that can be researched, analyzed, tested, managed, etc.  That’s the drudgery part of innovation and this is where people often need pressure and encouragement to keep going.  All of the energy used to create the ideas is often lost through the next stages of the innovation process.  It takes time and commitment.  But this is where real innovation happens.  It is truly the most exciting part of the process.  

Your Centre of Excellence
Google’s Chair, Eric Schmidt said: 
“If you don’t try, you don’t know.  We tried, I and you don’t even remember the names of the products that failed.  That’s the secret of innovation”.

Create your Innovation Centre of Excellence.  It will help your organization realize its innovation strategic imperative.  Helping your organization to achieve more innovations, to create the culture to support innovative thinking and to manage the innovation process is a major undertaking.  It can seem daunting to know where to begin.  However, the most important first step is just that – to take that first step.  It is a large and exciting change process.  Even a small initiative can help to demonstrate the possibilities of a more robust effort.  Lead your organization through this journey.  I have led others through this journey and you can too! 

About the Author
Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects.  He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management.   He has been instrumental in helping his clients increase productivity and profits with his innovative approaches and focus on quality.     

For more information about this article, please contact him at mstanleigh@bia.ca.

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