Innovation strategy: How to Ask Effective Questions

As someone with an interest in innovation management , you know the importance of asking questions and listening to answers. Indeed, you probably make it a habit to do this as often as possible. However, when it comes to innovation, some kinds of questions are better than others. Let us look at various types of questions and why they are good – or why they stink.
Open questions are best

Open questions are those whose answers are not a simple yes or no. Rather they require the listener give a detailed response. Asking if a customer is happy with a product will elicit a yes or a no. Indeed, unless the customer is distinctly unhappy, she is likely to give a non-committal yes.

Asking the same customer “in what ways might we make this product even better?” on the other hand is likely to elicit a lot of useful information. And the more customers you ask this to, the more useful information you will get.
Focus on positive or constructive answers

Imagine you are a hotelier and want to get ideas from your clients about what they like and dislike about your hotel in order to improve your service.

You could ask, “What did you not like about your stay at our hotel?” in order to find points of dissatisfaction. A guest might reply: “The beds were terrible. I couldn’t sleep.” This identifies a problem, but not a path to solving it.

Alternatively, you could ask “How could we make your stay in our hotel even better?” The same guest might reply: “Provide firmer mattresses. I found it very hard to sleep in your soft mattresses.” As you can see, this not only indicates a problem, but clarifies it making it easier to solve. Moreover, it encourages the guest to think positively towards the hotel!

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4 Tricks to Building a Successful Open Innovation Program

One of the most critical professional challenges that employees face today is being able to successfully manage positive change within their organization. Innovation is has become a watch word, with so many divisions not being able to find enough valuable ideas and then successfully manage those ideas into a commercial offering that sometimes companies even respond to customer tickets and bugs and simply label those results as “innovation.”

However, many organizations are still in an experimental phase and need help reaching innovation maturity. For those folks that want to get started, but aren’t sure where to begin we offer these four tips:

Start small

Many departments and organizations are intimidated at the prospect of opening up brainstorming. They worry about the value of ideas and intellectual property .

Build in some room to fail

Not every new project can knock it out of the park. 70% of startups never get out of their first eighteen months, 68% of IT projects aren’t delivered.

Generate some early wins

Not every new idea is complex or disruptive. Some changes are easy to evaluate and easy to implement with big impacts.


Once an innovation team has proven even some measurable value, it is much easier to apply those same processes and goals to other projects.

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The Value of Incremental Innovation

In this Blog I want to talk about the value of incremental innovation and why companies should

often focus on this, rather than driving as hard as they can to come up with the next

breakthrough product or service. Incremental improvements aren’t always cool, but over time

they can drive significant business results.

Before proceeding, I should once again outline the kind of companies that I often work with.

They are not the Apple’s, Google’s or Amazon’s of the world. I tend to work with organizations

that are well established, not at a point of imminent collapse, and often trying to be

innovative, but struggling to execute on their ideas. No company that I have ever worked with

has a shortage of ideas.

A focus on incremental innovations, and the activities that source and develop them, make

sense in the following context:

Pipeline Management: Too often I see organizations filling an innovation pipeline with

large-scale, broadly scoped, long-term innovations that leave their programs vulnerable. I say

the world “vulnerable” with purpose. Innovation programs are often politically sensitive and

need to be extremely conscious of the constant pressure to undermine their achievements and

goals (read this article for more details). By having a pipeline that is balanced, there is a

better chance that at least some activities will be implemented, balancing out some of the

failures which you are sure to encounter.

Starting a program: Often leaders of new innovation management programs are tempted to focus on big

thinking. And why not? It is sexy, cool and fun! The reality is that new programs will face

some healthy skepticism by their leadership, especially within established business units, so

it is important to get some runs on the board. By quickly demonstrating success, even with

smaller ideas, you are able to create an impression of momentum and a build towards bigger

ticket thinking.

Pressure on results: Innovation leaders are often told by leadership that they want “Big

I” ideas, but at the same time (or soon after) there is pressure to generate immediate

financial impact. In this case you just don’t have the time to develop the big ideas, so it

can be a better position to generate some incremental improvements. This can take the

immediate pressure off and allow you to demonstrate a rate of success in order to build some

political capital to focus on bigger ideas.

Generating Stakeholder buy-in: If you are struggling to secure and maintain stakeholder

buy-in, focusing on incremental improvements can demonstrate your ability to drive change,

without destroying their organization (often their concern) or needlessly redirecting

resources. By building success, aligned with their needs (an important point to understand),

you can secure their buy-in and support over time.

Launching innovation challenges: There is no shortage of innovation platform vendors in

the marketplace, and many of them will encourage you to run challenges or campaigns that focus

on big, bold visions of the future. This is especially true when they are launching their

product into your organization, as they want substantial engagement metrics to justify

investment in their platform. In my experience, and this may be controversial, launching with

these “Big I” crowdsourced challenges early will encourage a lot of employee excitement.

However if you don’t have an established model of idea execution, that excitement will

dissipate (at best) or turn negative when the participants realize that their ideas haven’t

been built. By focusing on smaller areas of improvement, especially when launching these

efforts, you can build community trust and demonstrate real traction with the winning ideas.

Cultural pushback: Many mature and regulated organizations often have cultures that

pushback on new thinking, in any form. Within this environment, it is important to assess how

much you can enhance the culture, in terms of new ideas development. Focusing on smaller

improvements can be a way to limit potential pushback, and give you a chance to demonstrate

that something can be built effectively within that culture. By the way, a goal should

absolutely be to change that culture over time.

In conclusion, I am not saying that innovation program leaders should focus on incremental

innovation at all times. What I am saying, is that just because an idea is small, or a program

is in place to generate responses to more modest issues, it shouldn’t be discarded. By

considering the broader context of the organization’s culture, and also the ecosystem of

innovative activity within an organization, incremental improvements should make some level of

sense. These smaller ideas aren’t going to get you on the cover of Time magazine, but they may

help your retain you job and drive real, cumulative business impact over time.

To Focus Employees on Innovation, Align Their Goals and Compensation

The ability to deliver new value requires systemic evolution in business strategy, culture, organizational design, and customer awareness. Employees can and will deliver new customer value, but the way they are paid and directed must change first and then the results will follow.

People perform the way they are compensated to perform. If an enterprise is structured and compensates its people to be creative, it receives creativity from them. If the company preaches that creativity and innovation are valued but don’t align their compensation and employee goal setting with these objectives, not surprisingly, very little innovation happens.

With all of the downsizing, offshoring, and Six Sigma/Lean that people have been living through for the past 20 years, they have learned to, “keep their eyes inside the boat” and not to stray too far from their defined goals and objectives.

People who are engaged in profit-orientated businesses are, for the most part, employed to perform specific types of tasks. Whether the task is on a production line or producing invoices, people develop a set of skills and sell those skills to an employer. So it should come as no surprise that the employees of a company are focused on what they are compensated to produce. If people are not compensated or rewarded in some way to be creative, to produce changes that delight a customer, and to find new opportunity areas, why would anyone expect them to do so?

A variety of tools have emerged over the years to assist managers in directing their employees’ efforts. Key performance indicators, 360 degree performance, management by objectives. Do any of these ring a bell? Performance management should be focused on setting goals that are aligned with business strategy, extending a person’s skill set, and aligning resources to achieve business strategy.

Most people are compensated based on their ability to achieve a predetermined set of goals and objectives. Managers review employee performance based on their ability to meet the goals. Many, many words are being written currently about organizations delivering innovation . Executives are refocusing their attention on delivering new value to their customers, but how many executives are looking at the way they compensate their people? It doesn’t make much sense to tell people to be creative, to discover opportunities, to increase customer value when these same people are being paid to deliver completely different things.

If business strategy requires new products, services, or business models to extend its competitive advantage, it also requires new ways to focus and reward the people who work for the enterprise. If people are compensated based on their ability to complete tasks, it isn’t logical to also expect them to create new things unless they are rewarded and recognized for this ability.

The ability to deliver new value to the customer (i.e., innovation Management) requires systemic evolution in business strategy, culture, organizational design, and customer awareness. Employees can and will deliver new customer value, but the way they are paid and directed must change first and then the results will follow.