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Communicate or stall: In the pandemic, virtual project management processes are crucial to keeping innovation moving.

Fumbling project transitions and managing handoffs has always been a challenge. Pandemic-driven shifts to virtual teams has turned bad communication into a prolific killer of innovation.

Communicate or stall

by Eliot Baker, Programs and Content Manager

Good communication is key to good innovation outcomes. That holds true for R&D pre-and-post-Covid-19. Every technology project has transitions between phases, from ideation to testing to development to prototyping, and so on. Communication is the glue that holds the project together across all those transitions and handoffs to its final position as a commercial product. 

With Covid-19 eliminating many of the face-to-face interactions relied upon for important decisions, there’s a widespread sense of urgency for organizing distributed work forces and gaining virtual project management expertise. Many are saying R&D must fundamentally change to survive the new normal (this Accenture article recommends adopting 5 steps to redesign R&D for the “Never Normal”). Relax. It’ll be OK.

This change is the acceleration of a trend, not an extinction event from outer space.  Your innovation can, and must, continue. Xinova years ago foresaw the practice of innovation changing, and as a result was designed for the focus of distributed brainpower and the virtual management of innovation projects. The global shift to distributed expertise will promote more unexpected and innovative solutions. The process of innovation is more efficient and less risky. Return is higher. And virtual teams are more resilient against future disruptions, viral or otherwise.

“The thing that’s been the most impressive, and that we find the most interesting about Xinova, is just the caliber of these folks—these inventors–that they have curated in their network,” said Sameer Talsania, PhD, Senior Manager, External Innovation at PepsiCo R&D in a previous article about R&D leadership in the CPG and food & bev spaces. “These are also folks who are outside of the food and beverage industry, so they are bringing a completely different line of thinking to the problem, which I think has been really, really interesting—it’s definitely out-of-the-box type thinking.”

To succeed in the shift to distributed virtual innovation, companies must examine core communications practices, keeping an extra keen eye on project transitions. 

It’s vital to get the right people together at the right time to ensure smooth transitions. This can be done virtually. C-level support helps keep motivation to succeed high, so buy-in from the top is essential. The key is establishing a defined chain of project milestones that keeps the project’s progress transparent and efficient, and leaves no question about what must happen to trigger the next milestone. This requires project owners who will keep things moving with a good communication plan. How is this different today?

First off, get used to communicating more. Innovation managers at Xinova have found that with virtual projects, monthly check-ins are the minimum.  Regular informal project updates are essential, be it weekly or daily depending on the project’s status. It’s essential to schedule one-on-ones along with team meetings to ensure everyone is engaged and aligned.

Telling the right story

Achieving alignment begins with identifying key people within and beyond the R&D department. If you’re unsure who those people are, sit down and map out the project milestones. See where you’ll have to go and who you’ll have to talk to get from one phase to the next; and then make the right introductions.

“Partners like Xinova help you with the technology. But we also help prepare the articulation of the technology’s business aspects, too, which R&D leads might not be accustomed to addressing. It’s a translational process of getting the business units and R&D to speak a common language. But communication barriers between business units can often pose a challenge to advancing an open innovation project.” — David Kraft, Head of Innovation Services Group

It’s amazing what can turn up in those interdepartmental conversations about goals. And those connections will grease the tracks for project advancement. It’s harder to drop the ball when you know the person who is counting on you to pick it up.

“We see companies being successful at handing off technology projects throughout their organization when project managers are talking about that technology in terms of the company’s and customers’ needs. They’re very good at bringing everyone along on the journey from the beginning by getting feedback and consensus early on in the process, establishing a real partnership throughout the entire organization. This prevents innovation from being a silo event, of throwing something over the wall unfinished and hoping it gets picked up. And then, as the technology begins to demonstrate validity, either technically or business-wise, that handoffs are more easily managed. It’s this escalating commitment that occurs throughout the organization.” – David Kraft, Head of Innovation Services Group

Target goals everyone can get behind

Fumbling project handoffs is a prolific killer of innovationAs a technical person, the R&D leader’s goals are likely of the technical persuasion. Sales and marketing are focused on getting something they can push to market and sell. Executive leadership leans towards driving growth and revenue. Or perhaps there are loftier corporate goals like sustainability that’s driving innovation. 

The trick is thinking beyond the purely technical aspect of a problem. Nick Milanovich has written a series of excellent articles and tips on this topic. Essentially, scientists must become entrepreneurs when pitching their projects in order to, A) sell it internally and, B) recognize the potential value within an unexpected idea should it align with broader, non-technical goals.

In Xinova’s EMRO case study, the goal was clear: integrate AI to improve platform and procurement services. It was a relatively straightforward objective of technology adoption. There were many available ideas, and the most feasible approach was chosen. 

Value shapes and drives the innovation story. Showing a project’s value will When selecting an innovation project from a menu of options, be sure to understand–and articulate to stakeholders–how it:

  1. Adds value to the company
  2. Provides benefits that are owned by the company
  3. Yields top-line revenue growth over efficiency improvements
  4. Aligns with short-term vs. long-term budget and objectives

“To the extent that’s possible, R&D should prioritize problems where their business is going to be able to own the benefits of a solution. That seems obvious, but a lot of times people want to solve something where the solution doesn’t bring any real value to their company. It might make their life easier, or maybe that of the person that’s asked them to solve the problem, but it’s not a natural solution for that company to develop. Whereas if the problem is framed in order to bring in solutions that are a natural fit for that company, then it’s just so much easier to get stuff going forward. 

Also, anything that delivers top-line revenue growth over efficiency improvements is always way better. You might have a brilliant solution to improve efficiency by a few fractions of a percent, but it’s very hard to get people excited all the way up the chain for passing it off to different business units. Whereas top-line revenue growth, everybody can get behind. Efficiency problems are scientifically interesting and might sound like fun to work on, but in the end for open innovation, it doesn’t really seem valuable to the rest of the organization.” — Matt Ferguson

Find the real problem, discover the right solution

Find the real problem, discover the right solutionSurprising discoveries and important lessons are revealed when a problem is dug up by the roots. It can be a real plot twist; perhaps the issue was process-oriented and not technical after all. 

Understanding the problem fundamentally informs the approach to the solution.

“If you are looking for something brand new, then you want to own the IP for that solution with a patentable invention. But we see it all the time where the relationship begins with the partner saying they want big inventive solutions, and then we dig deeper into the problem and get a better understanding of their goals only to realize that the best solution might be new to their company but not new to the world. And that’s a huge difference. It’s cheaper, it’s simpler, it’s faster. And so if you can agree on that, the partner can approach the solution via a new application for an existing technology rather than generating inventions, and that’s a completely different process.” — Shivani Ludwig, Innovation Development Manager

“The initial engagement is typically around understanding that problem. So defining it and digging in and immersing and really getting to know why that challenge exists and what the significance of it is. And then that informs the innovation process” — Mike Manion, CEO, Keon Research

“Our inventor network and our innovator network can help identify solutions, and we have a vast pool of expertise to choose from. A problem may lead itself to a software solution, or a hardware solution, or a user interface solution. And from there we can draw from all of those disciplines and mix and match inventors in order to find that combination of traits that fit the kinds of problems that are being solved.  — Seth Miller, Managing Director

Collaborations and expectations

Innovation challenges remain unsolved because they’re hard. That sounds obvious, but it’s important to understand that there’s no magic bullet for innovation. While bringing in outside expertise can open up some incredible new idea horizons, it’s important everyone gets aligned on reasonable outcomes. 

“Your hardest problems are hard for a reason. Some of these problems have been around for decades. Hundreds of millions of dollars of research might have been poured into a specific problem. Co-Innovation makes finding solutions easier, but it is not a magic wand. Understand that if you’re trying to transform an industry or a technology, and you’re trying to do it in six months, for only a few thousand dollars, the probability of success is low. ”

– David Kraft, Global Head of Innovation Services Group

Setting expectations also involves installing project benchmarks. This is a good way to prepare for the next handoff or respond to a setback.

“We’re way more successful with a big project when we can articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing at one phase and what will happen next, so that as you are successful in achieving the next technical milestone you can get buy-in for moving to the next step. Having that kind of a plan at a high level helps sets expectations for the partner. It demonstrates you know what you’re doing and that work is proceeding in the right direction.” – Matt Ferguson, VP, Network and Technology 

It’s better to innovate together, rather than one party expecting the other to do it for them. The goal should be for the output of research and development activity to input directly into corporate R&D partners at the bench scale. Giving the R&D team ownership of a project ensures their buy-in, and prevents any “not invented here” or misguided notions of toes being stepped on.

“In many cases where we see adoption, it’s often because the engineering is co-owned. Partners have invested their time and energy to the point where it wasn’t a Xinova innovation. It’s theirs. They’ve taken that baby into their home. They’ve adopted it.” – David Kraft

Prepare to sell your innovation internally

Often, R&D might know who to talk to advance a project but would benefit from outside help pitching the idea. Trained in technology, they don’t always know how to best tell an innovation’s story with commercial appeal, as entrepreneurs and VCs would. That’s OK. Bring someone in to provide the tools to tell that story.

And ensure it advances beyond the next project transition.

“Whatever it is-marketing tools, a presentation-we make sure to give it to the partner to help them sell the project internally and get the necessary staffing and budget for the next phase. I heard often at the IRI conference, talking to R&D Managers, that they needed more tools to be able to sell internally. Selling isn’t a natural part of their skillset, which is more technical. Even when they know who they have to talk to, they know what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t feel that they’re able to sell their work well enough to hand it off to the next guy. There are different ways to do this, there are different frameworks like just we as the partner role-playing and putting on the hat of the CEO or CTO and asking those sorts of questions. If you start with that you at least know what holes exist and who would help fill those gaps.”

– Shivani Ludwig, Innovation Development Manager

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