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Communicate or stall

Fumbling project handoffs is a prolific killer of innovation

Communicate or stall Be it with smaller organizations or large MNCs, communication predicts successful advancement of innovation. That can be doubly true on open innovation projects. Xinova managers have noted how companies with particularly strong innovation infrastructure and success KPIs happen to be particularly adept at getting the right people in the room at the right time to ensure smooth transitions. That’s not an accident. Innovation-minded companies understand that establishing a communication plan with a defined chain of project milestones and owners gets things going and keeps them moving down the line.

In addition to monthly check-ins, it’s helpful to give or request project updates weekly, or in real-time. Frequent one-on-ones between project managers are helpful as well. Again, this is doubly true with an open innovation partnership, with open innovation here meaning any external partner who augments your goals and ability to innovate. It’s easy to think of someone you’ve never met as a faceless vendor-robot who’ll autonomously figure something out even if you don’t respond. Getting face-time or phone time helps remind everyone that people are involved and encourages timely support.

Buy-in at the MNC level

Larger organizations can present different sorts of challenges to communication and alignment than small or medium-sized companies. Where participation from the C-level can be expected from a smaller company, it’s unlikely that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company will serve as point-of-contact on an R&D project. Buy-in must go high enough to secure funding, which doesn’t necessarily require getting to the top of the organization. 

The central importance of alignment holds true for collaboration between MNCs, SMEs and startups. It’s crucial that:

  1. Everyone’s goals are understood across the company 
  2. There’s total buy-in from anyone who will touch the project and move it forward 

Achieving alignment begins with identifying key people within and beyond the R&D department. If you’re unsure who those people are, sit down with the open innovation partner, map out the process, and then make the right introductions. It’s amazing what can turn up in those interdepartmental conversations about goals, and those connections will grease the tracks for project advancement. 

“Co-innovation partners, like Xinova, help you with the technology but 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.

“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 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 the 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. 

For large companies, the key goals to keep in mind are shaped by value. When choosing an innovation project, be sure to think about 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. 

Problem definition is a core pillar to open innovation. 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

Manage 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

Buy-in alignment is the first step. But often, R&D might know who to talk to advance a project but lack the skills and tools to communicate a project’s value adequately. They don’t know how to tell its story, as entrepreneurs and VCs would say. That’s OK. Ask the open innovation partner to provide the tools to tell it.

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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