Phases of Innovation

When I ask business leaders to identify which part of the innovation process their organizations struggle with the most, I typically get one of three answers:

1. We have a lot of ideas but most of them get judged as impossible or too hard to implement based on changing the way things currently are

2. We have a hard time deciding which idea or opportunity to pursue

3. We come up with a lot of good ideas but can’t seem to execute on them

Interestingly, these align exactly with the phases of innovation: discovery, evaluation, and execution.

In business, innovation is the act of applying knowledge to the creation of new processes, products, and services that have value for at least one of your stakeholder groups. Obviously, this requires more than just generating a slew of creative ideas. In order to produce true innovation, you have to actually do something different that has value. In other words, follow through on the good ideas. This requires a very different set of skills and resources than idea generation.

Achieving value creation from innovation requires a direct link between the proposed innovation and your strategy, plus a workforce that has the appropriate skills and abilities to discover, evaluate, and execute on the best ideas. It also requires a culture (or context) that supports innovation.

What does this look like?

Creating a powerful context to support innovation starts with constantly communicating the direct link between innovation and the organization’s picture of winning. It also requires behaviors that don’t come naturally to most organizations. These include building and encouraging diversity, using supportive language and behaviors, and encouraging risk-taking.

Innovation needs to become an integral part of the way the entire company does business rather than something a few isolated individuals work on in some remote corner of the company. Management needs to encourage the open sharing of ideas and information, and support intra-departmental collaboration. It needs to lead the way by advocating and owning innovation, and employing flexible processes and procedures. Most of all, it needs to build an environment where people are allowed to take risks and sometimes fail — which most organizations loathe to do.

The chances for successful innovation increase geometrically when you create a powerful context for innovation and then build a culture that supports it. However, by itself, a supportive culture will not necessarily guarantee innovation. If you’re not getting any traction with your innovation efforts, it may be that your organization lacks the skills and competencies to complete one or more of the following phases.

Phase I – Discovery 

Phase I has two basic objectives: developing core innovation competencies and generating new and creative ideas, which often includes gathering customer insights and translating them into workable ideas.

Everyone has the ability to think creatively, but most people need some training and coaching in order to bring out those latent abilities. Key activities during this phase include providing learning sessions, workshops, collaboration fairs, ideation boot camps, and other tools that teach people how to think differently.

Innovation enablers during this phase include:

  • Encouraging and rewarding idea generation
  • Awareness of the brain’s processing and potential hurdles
  • Defining winning/excellence
  • Balancing big picture and details
  • Challenging assumptions
  • “What if?” thinking
  • Changing perspectives
  • Considering the right answer
  • Influencing others effectively

Key players during this phase: individual contributors and managers who encourage and support them.

Phase II – Evaluation 

This phase separates the wheat from the chaff, as potential ideas and opportunities undergo a rigorous screening process. New ideas are discussed, tested, evaluated, and compared for their potential to add value to customers, generate new revenue streams, or accomplish a specific innovation goal. The primary objective is to identify the highest-value opportunities and determine the feasibility of turning them into reality.

Innovation enablers during this phase include:

  • Creating and supporting an idea evaluation framework
  • Taking risks
  • Balancing day-to-day versus longer term
  • Accepting ideas (remain open)
  • Looking for “and” versus “but” solutions
  • Encouraging some failure (within boundaries)
  • Thinking cross-functionally/organizationally

Key players during this phase: managers and leaders who have set clear strategic direction and guidance.

Phase III – Execution 

This phase involves making sure that the high-value opportunities identified during the evaluation phase align with your organizational capabilities. Then senior management has to commit the time, money, and resources to make the innovation happen. This is followed by close tracking of the business performance of the new product or service, as well as measuring the process used to develop the innovation and looking for ways to improve it.

Innovation enablers during this phase include:

  • Continually communicating the need for innovation as a business focus/strategic mandate
  • Linking innovation to key strategies
  • Sponsoring innovation projects
  • Incorporating innovation reports into the business review processes
  • Funding innovation
  • Developing risk management strategies and approaches
  • Capturing and sharing innovation learnings
  • Learning from failures Key players during this phase: senior management/leaders.

The added benefits of innovation 

When innovation becomes a way of life in your organization, you get a lot more than just new products and services.

The organizational mindset shifts to one of relentless improvement, with an increased awareness of opportunities and possibilities for products and efficiencies. There is more listening, less knee-jerk defending of old ideas, and a greater understanding of, and interest in, unmet customer needs.

As individuals begin to understand their roles in the innovation process, you get more clarity on what success looks like and how to achieve it. Standards of performance increase, along with an increased willingness and ability to hold each other accountable for meeting them.

Most important, as you begin to develop a sustainable innovation approach, the emphasis tends to shift from maintaining old successes to considering new opportunities and products – a key element in staying ahead of changing customer needs rather than always trying to catch up.

If you struggle to get new products to market, ask yourself, “Where are we getting stuck? What skills and competencies do we need to develop to move forward?” When you have all the pieces in place to successfully complete all stages, innovation becomes your way of working, not a project or initiative that goes away when the next business buzzword gains prominence!

Consultant, Author, Speaker
Holly Green is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( She has over 20 years of executive level and operations experience in FORTUNE 100, entrepreneurial, and management consulting organizations.

Green’s background stretches across strategic planning, organization design and development, and leadership assessment and development. She has been responsible for successfully designing and building critical infrastructures in several organizations and has worked as both an internal and external resource for multinational corporations including: AT&T, Dell Computer, Bass Hotels & Resorts, Expedia, RealNetworks, Microsoft and Google. She was previously president of The Ken Blanchard Companies, a global consulting and training organization, and the biotech firm LumMed.

Her commitment to educating executives on how to be effective leaders and managers in today’s changing world is evident with a proven track record of value-added delivery. As a sought-after speaker and consultant, she has received national recognition and in 2007 was honored as a dynamic business leader and role model receiving the Women Who Mean Business Award.

Holly conducts more than 50 workshops annually for Vistage, the world’s largest CEO membership organization. She is also a frequent keynote speaker for numerous corporate and professional associations. Her book, More Than A Minute: How To Be An Effective Leader & Manager In Today’s Changing World ( lends voice to her corporate experience and goes beyond the theory of leading and managing by providing practical action oriented information..

Holly has a BA in behavioral sciences and Master of Science degree in organizational development from American University in Washington, D.C. She is currently on staff at Webster University where she teaches courses in the graduate program. Holly also teaches for the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management in the executive education program.

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