Tips for Organizational Innovation Initiatives

Culture change has to start somewhere and if you finally got the green light to start bringing more creativity to your organization, you don’t want to miss a beat. Many times the opportunity to host a new team training, an organization-wide innovation week or fair, a design sprint on a tough business challenge, or even bringing some new tools into a meeting will dictate whether people endorse or criticize those efforts—first impressions are everything.

We had a client recently ask us what they should be thinking about before hosting their first-ever innovation week, which got us to thinking and then writing. The following list of tips will help you prepare for the before, during and after—ensuring you get the best ROI on your work, both monetarily and culturally.


Pre Innovation Initiative Tips

The planning phase is your opportunity to lay a solid foundation that will make it much easier to advance your organization’s innovation initiative forward while ensuring that you hit key milestones and goals along the way. Here are some of the best ways to lay that foundation:

Get Internal Alignment

You’ll want to make sure the members of your organization are aligned on the “why.” Be super clear—let everyone know why design thinking is the tool for the job, why now is the time to use it, and what it means for your organization. Having that internal alignment is one of the most important steps along the way, and a huge determinant of the success of the initiative.

Get (Authentic) Leader Support

You probably need the support (or at least the approval) of your bosses for any major project. But for an organization-wide innovation initiative, a lukewarm “OK” from the higher-ups isn’t enough. This is about the culture of your whole organization! You want the leadership to be excited about the process and enthusiastic in their support. The primary risk is a skeptical leader pulling back their support 2-3 months once the fire has been lit. This can cause more damage than good. Case studies showing how similar initiatives have benefitted other organizations are a great way to get the authentic support you need, and integrating a specific leadership training or conversation can be a safe way to air skepticisms and translate what it means for them.

Start Light

This is completely relative to each organization, but don’t try to do it all at once. Kick things off with reasonable expectations and goals. Cultural change isn’t easy. You’re more likely to be successful if you start slow, focusing on building awareness and buy-in first. Once people get use to these new ideas and practices, you’ll be able to start building expertise.

Make it Part of the Bigger Picture

Frame this process as part of the larger strategic direction of your organization, rather than a one-off event. You’ll want to focus attention not just on planning your kick-off, but also on what what will happen afterwards. The more you can connect it to the bigger picture, and put it in context of your organization’s overarching goals, the more successful it’s apt to be.

Focus on Business Objectives

Your innovation strategy should be driven by your overall business objectives. Design Thinking is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Design Thinking can build your business in lots of different ways, but, in order for it to be successful, you need to specify your business goals (i.e. increase revenue among existing users, acquire new users, build brand equity, enter new product categories, defend against competitors, etc).


Tips During the Innovation Initiative

With the groundwork laid and the innovation initiative in motion, you’ll need to keep revisiting your goals, throughout the course of the project, to make sure everything is still on track. This process may be very new and different for a lot of folks in your organization, which means they may actively resist the process or simply not have the proper toolkit to implement best practices effectively. Here are four recommended ways you can keep the initiative moving in the right direction:

Don’t Miss the Story

One way to help build awareness and enthusiasm is to create a narrative around the process of planning and implementing this innovation initiative. Document it with photos, videos and blog posts, and use them to tell a story about what your organization is doing and why. That documentation can serve as a kind of internal branding that you can use to promote the innovation initiative throughout your organization.

Make it the Organization’s Voice, not Yours

Creating a cultural change is easier when there’s more than one person talking about it. Engage leadership and other employees to take active roles kicking off, facilitating and sharing stories, so that your voice isn’t the only one your organization hears. It’s not just your personal project—it’s for everyone!

Don’t Force it—Customize

If you’ve helped implement this kind of cultural change at other organizations, that experience can be super valuable as you help an organization go through it for the first time. Just remember to be mindful of the differences between organizations—not every tactic transfers. Customize this initiative so it fits the needs of this particular organization and allows for authentic innovation—that’s the only kind that actually works.

Reinforce Behaviors not Just Outcomes.

We all want great ideas and solutions that grow the business, but culture change comes from the everyday actions and behaviors—so make sure you reward and celebrate them as well.

Plan for Extreme Reactions

Whenever someone calls for change, there’s someone ready to stand up and argue against it. That’s not a bad thing! Make sure you provide a space and a forum for people to challenge the process and ask tough questions. That way everyone feels like their concerns are being heard. And since you’re anticipating those reactions, you can prepare great answers to help bring the doubters around.


Post Innovation Initiative Tips

As we’ve mentioned, in order for your organization to successfully implement and get the most value from an innovation initiative, it has to be part of a larger process, not just a one-off event. And that means planning for post-event. This is the time to evaluate the process, solidify the results and set up future projects. Here are four great ways to do that:

Debrief Three Times

Debriefing gives you a chance to really look at how the initiative went—what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved for next time. Start by debriefing with your team about the specifics of the process and about what your next steps should be. Next, debrief with the participants in the initiative to hear their reactions—they can be a source of great ideas for your future projects! And don’t forget to debrief with the leadership. You’ll want to get their input on how they felt about the process and make sure they’re still supportive.

Share the Calls to Action ASAP

You created your vision early for a reason, now is the time to pull it out. Send out follow-ups as soon as possible to let the people in your organization know what happened, what’s going to happen next, and how they can get involved in the process.

Leverage Your Catalysts

In addition to following up with your organization as a whole, plan more in-depth follow-ups with the folks that have become passionate advocates in your organization—the catalysts. They’ll be able to help you get the rest of the organization excited about and interested in continuing the design thinking process. It can be as simple as grabbing a happy hour drink or planning a lunch.

Remember, the people in your organization who are intrinsically motivated to innovate are the most valuable. They can be taught design thinking skills and given resources to amplify their efforts. Motivation, on the other hand, can’t be taught.

Don’t Over-Engineer the Process

Be careful to not overcomplicate the process, especially at the beginning of your culture change efforts. Too many check-ins, approvals and process requirements are a major turnoff. You want to lower the barriers to adoption, not add new ones.

Create a Concrete Success Story

Your organization just went through its first innovation initiative and now it’s time to tell that story. Use your team, documentation of the process, and your organization’s catalysts to create concrete success stories about how the initiative went, what it achieved, and why that matters. That narrative will help solidify the value of the design thinking process in your organization and keep the energy and enthusiasm high for the next round.

An innovation initiative is only as good as the principles that inform it. You don’t want to go through all the planning and prep and work only to find that you’ve lost sight of the original goal! Being mindful of the user-centric best practices of design thinking at every stage of the initiative will help make it a success for your organization—and for your customers!



Andy Hagerman
[email protected]
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