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As we reach the end of the year, it is time for the annual ritual of the employee performance review in which a Manager reviews an employee’s work accomplishments, providing a grade and guidance for areas of improvement in the upcoming year.
As innovation practitioners, this is also a good time for us to step back and think about how well we performed in our innovation roles in the previous year with an eye towards leveraging lessons learned to improve the program next year. Although there are myriad ways of measuring innovation activity, the following list provides a starting set of criteria to assess one’s innovation efforts in 2013.
This is the balance between what an innovation practitioner provides to an organization or client in terms of new ideas to consider (“push”) versus the areas that an organization or client identifies to an innovation practitioner as worthy of investigation (“pull”). An example of an idea that is “pushed” would be one in which an innovation leader identifies an innovation in a research lab that could be used to help an organization perform better in its daily operations. Conversely, an idea that is “pulled” would be one in which an organization identifies a pain point and asks an innovation team to spend time researching various solutions to that problem, such as a step in a manufacturing process that is constantly breaking and slowing down overall production efforts. There is no magic formula for the perfect balance between push and pull for an innovation program. However, as is the case with many endeavors in the business world, it may be wise to avoid the extremes of either position, as would be the case if the innovation leader was always pushing ideas but not getting any requests from the organization for new problems to solve.
This is a measurement of the amount of time an implementation team spends brainstorming new ideas versus working on the actual implementation of ideas that were previously identified as promising. Ideation is often easier than implementation and usually a fun exercise, especially with a motivated team in a brainstorming session. The output of ideation can be written on a whiteboard in a conference room, whereas implementation requires managing budgets and project teams and results in the creation of an actual product or the application of a process change to a real business environment. Because implementation tends to be harder than ideation, the natural inclination of the innovation practitioner may be to focus more on the latter than the former, but it is important to be aware of the balance between these areas and tailor them to the demands of the business or organization. After all, if ideas generated by a team are not getting implemented, the innovation leader may need to rethink the ideation approach to focus on more practical solutions.
Return on Investment (ROI)
This metric can sometimes be a painful one to assess at the end of a year, particularly if the innovation team has not been able to implement an innovation that resulted in improved performance on the part of the business or organization, whether in the form of a new product or service with successful sales results or a cost-reducing idea that improves performance. The investment is the amount of time and money spent by the innovation team, in the form of salaries of resources fully dedicated to the innovation efforts as well as the time spent by other resources (workshop participants, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), consultants) in the overall innovation program. Although some innovation efforts may take multiple years to come to fruition, the innovation leader should be cognizant of the fact that resources are finite and although innovation is a high-profile endeavor for many companies, the bottom line results of the effort must be considered on a regular basis. This may suggest to an innovation leader the need to maintain a balanced portfolio of projects that will demonstrate results in the short, medium, and long term so there is a constant stream of projects with measurable ROI emanating from the resources invested into the effort.
Many innovation leaders maintain a tracking sheet of their innovation initiatives so they are able to log new ideas and keep tabs on the progression of other initiatives throughout the initiative lifecycle. One challenge for the innovation leader is avoiding the fallacy that bigger is better in terms of the list of initiatives. For instance, an innovation team that has generated 100 ideas in a set period of time could be seen as more productive than one that only generated 10 ideas. However, the innovation practitioner should be wary of focusing on these types of measurements, as the quality of ideas can often trump the quantity. Nonetheless, there is value in thinking about the quantity of ideas generated, for a team that spends all afternoon in a brainstorming session but only discusses one idea may miss out on a true innovation that would emerge from moving onto other topics. For the year-end innovation review, one should carefully examine the balance of quality versus quantity of ideas on a tracking sheet and make adjustments as needed in future ideation sessions.
One of the simplest questions an innovation practitioner can ask as part of his or her year-end review is whether the universe of individuals with whom one is interacting has increased or decreased. In other words, has the extended innovation team grown (is the innovation practitioner working with more SMEs in more business units or teams), or has the team size stayed the same or declined? As if the case with any part of a business, growth is typically a good sign and decline is usually a bad sign, so an innovation leader should think about ways to expand his or her involvement with other parts of the organization. This can provide benefits to the new group in the form of potential innovative solutions to problems and may also help cross-pollinate ideas for the innovation team working to solve other issues.
This is a corollary to the notion of expansion and contraction to the extent that it measures how often the innovation team is interacting with other individuals, groups, and organizations within and outside the company. An interesting trend in workplace design focuses on the importance of creating opportunities for employees to “bump” into each other which, presumably, fosters increased communication and exchange of ideas. This design characteristic pervades the thinking at Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and many other factories of innovation.
According Professor John Sullivan at San Francisco State University, even the lines in the cafeteria at Google are designed to ensure that Google employees talk to colleagues from other groups, known as the “Google bump.” A recent study Wei Pan from the MIT Media Laboratory’s Human Dynamics Lab suggests that innovation that comes from cities because the greater density in cities encourages more interactions between people and this leads to more exchange of ideas. Serendipitous interactions between individuals can lead to innovative thinking.
As an innovation practitioner, we should strive to increase our interactions at the office with an eye towards making sure that we are exchanging ideas and approaches with a wide array of individuals, even if it means scheduling innovation discussions with brand new groups of people we had not planned to engage in past efforts. Valuable new ideas can come from these discussions, so in our annual review we should give ourselves a friction score to make sure that we are not falling into predictable patterns of interactions.
The Hamburger Technique
A final concept for our annual review comes from the freelance writer Jennifer Breheny Wallace. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wallace recommends the use of an annual review approach called the “Hamburger Technique” which traces the building of a hamburger from the bottom bun upwards as a means of organizing the feedback for a performance review without making the process overly negative, as is sometimes the case. Wallace recommends starting with a series of compliments, which represents the “soft bun” at the base of the hamburger. For our innovation self-review, this can consist of focusing on what we did really well in the previous year, such as a very productive set of workshops or an innovation that worked its way through a development lifecycle and became a product in the marketplace.
The next layer for the review is the “big criticism,” which represents the solid meat of the hamburger. This represents the innovation practitioner’s biggest failure of the year, such as a workshop that failed to deliver on its promises or a set of ideas that never gained traction even though they absorbed a large investment of time and money. Although in the innovation space we are taught that failure can be a good thing, nonetheless we tend to try to avoid failure when possible.
The next layer for review is the “room to grow” or “lettuce,” which consists of places where the innovation practitioner can improve or apply more effort to drive better results. These are not major failures but, rather, areas that are on the edge between success and failure that require additional application to move in the right direction.
The final review layer is another set of compliments, the “soft bun,” which allows the innovation practitioner to conclude the innovation review with an additional focus on positive achievements from the year, such as a compliment from a Senior Executive or client about the value obtained from an innovation effort or even a modestly successful implementation of a small process change that drove value to the enterprise. Any review should conclude with a focus on the positive, which can reinforce those behaviors with an eye towards repeating them in the upcoming year which, after all, is the whole purpose of the reviews in the first place.