Part 1: Building an Innovation Supply Chain

How enterprises can capture more value from their innovation ecosystem.

calendar icon June 21, 2019

Managing innovation within a large enterprise is akin to managing a supply chain. Start-ups, VCs, incubators and universities supply the components that business leaders need to keep pace with market demands and stay ahead of competitors. Getting an innovation supply chain to run smoothly requires tools, people and process.

In this 3-part blog series, we’ll share what we learned by hosting a workshop for over 60 innovation leaders representing a cross-section of companies in the Fortune 500, as part of the Innovation Leader Field Study held in San Francisco. We’ll highlight what the participants felt was working – and what wasn’t – and present a few successful practices in each of the three domains essential to a well-run innovation supply chain:

  1. The internal network – how to align with the business to understand their needs and priorities to inform what types of companies and technologies are potentially a good fit.
  2. The external network – how to build and grow a network of potential partners who have the ideas, technologies and people that are best aligned with the needs of the business.
  3. The innovation team – how to establish effective collaboration and clear processes across teams, geographies and functions to eliminate redundancies and improve effectiveness.

KEY LEARNING AND INSIGHTS: INTERNAL NETWORK

The majority of participants agreed that a successful, strategy-driven innovation program depends upon developing relationships and a successful working style across internal teams. Where innovation teams seek to align closely with executive leadership and business units to understand where the gaps are in terms of what the company is going to build or buy, and where there is a need to form external partnerships. Being in lock-step with the business allows the innovation team to focus their scouting efforts on the most important strategic initiatives.

Top five practices

Strategies for developing relationships with key stakeholders along with creating and maintaining alignment varied widely, but the group eventually agreed on the Top 5:

  1. Find internal champions. Talk to your internal customers (and their customers). For most innovation teams, the primary people they serve are on executive and product teams. Meet with people in your organization who are on the front lines engaging with customers to develop a deep understanding and empathy for the buyers of your products. At the same time, build relationships with key internal stakeholders to understand their goals, challenges, and obstacles. If you spend all your time externally talking to startups and VCs, and haven’t invested in building a strong internal network, you won’t be effective in bringing outside ideas into the enterprise.
  2. Regular face-to-face team work. Building effective internal relationships is a function of being a good listener. The best thing you can do when you walk into a meeting with stakeholders is to ask a couple of carefully considered questions and get really curious — and then make sure you understand the answers. In the model of good discovery, listening leads to new insights, and eliminates faulty assumptions or the impulse to force-fit your ideas into an organization that doesn’t need or want them.
  3. Internal brand awareness. One common theme we heard from the group of innovation leaders was the need to make sure other teams across the company understand the role their team plays within the context of delivering new products to market. As part of this, they need to provide greater visibility into what the innovation team is working on, and how it’s contributing to the company’s goals. Many have found blogging and/or posting articles to the company intranet, knowledge-base or newsletter helpful, although many agreed that nothing is as effective as in-person conversations. Whether that is a webinar, a “lunch and learn” or simply scheduling regular meetings with key stakeholders, the importance of cultivating relationships and building awareness is critical to success.
  4. Building consensus and alignment. It is critical that the innovation organization build a competency, together with internal stakeholders, for prioritizing and selecting the right innovation projects to pursue at any given time. In addition, ensure there is a clear articulation of what success looks like and how it will be measured. Have candid discussions around the pressures business teams may face in trading off short-term outcomes for a potentially significant yet less certain long-term payoff. Once you agree to the priorities, desired outcomes and metrics, devise a process to ensure the alignment you achieved is maintained as you move forward on execution.
  5. Build a process. A key tenet of design thinking and customer-driven innovation is rapid, efficient solution discovery. Work closely with internal stakeholders, early and often, to explore how emerging technologies from the external ecosystem can be leveraged. Keep bringing potential solutions to the table and devise a process to evaluate them to ensure objectivity and consistency around decision making. You’ll want to capture all the needs and potential solutions in one place so you can track progress, continuously gather information, and assess the fit of potential solutions to the need. You’ll also want to ensure it’s easy to keep all stakeholders up to date on progress, that communications are fluid and transparent, and the pipelines of needs and solutions are organized and easy to access.

Finally, a customer-driven mindset enables innovation teams within the enterprise to develop a structured approach for understanding how the business is addressing end-customer needs, which informs how to source and commercialize ideas and new solutions outside the organization to best address those needs. But equally important is the ability to manage the innovation pipeline like a supply chain, with tools to power collaboration and communication across the entire process. Modern supply chain management tools would never rely on spreadsheets and email for tracking the flow of goods from suppliers through to the final product. Neither should an enterprise innovation function.

You can read more about these ideas in our recent Innovation Leader article.

Next month, we’ll delve into Part 2: the most effective strategies for building an external network of partnerships with entrepreneurs, accelerators, VCs, universities, and other enterprises.