A Year of Innovation - Enterprise Wide


We journeyed to a country rich in natural resources, with valuable deposits of many precious metals hidden underground. Specialty Products (not its real name) is a large consumer products company that also had hidden assets. Deep within their nearly 1,000 employees was a capability for creativity and innovation that was not being used to its potential. While the company had been a family-owned jewel for many generations, the family believed it was capable of more. 

We received a call from the CEO of Specialty Products, asking if we could conduct a workshop on creativity and innovation that would unleash the potential of their people and create significant growth opportunities for Specialty’s future. 

Our past experience told us that a workshop would create some new insights and high energy with their employees but unless they had some internal structure for using these outputs, the impact of skills training would have a negligible longer-term impact on their business. 

Sensing that there was a strong mandate from the leadership team for growth through innovation, we proposed instead that the workshop become the first step in the creation of enterprise-wide innovation for Specialty Products. In other words, we were suggesting that they condense the typical Innovation Journey mentioned earlier; skipping over Ad Hoc innovation, skipping over a Dedicated Office for innovation, and moving directly to the end of the Innovation Spectrum and implement Enterprise Innovation. 

Specialty Products’ leaders bought into the idea of a Year of Innovation, aimed at establishing the basis for Enterprise Innovation that would make innovation a sustainable process long-term. That meant that we would need to use the leadership mandate for innovation to develop the other three pillars within Specialty – infrastructure, process, and culture. 

Working closely with the COO and his management team, we proposed an infrastructure that would maintain and extend the momentum created by the creativity workshop. The plan called for the creation of Innovation Teams (or I-Teams) that would use creativity tools and techniques to develop solutions to existing Specialty Products issues and opportunities. The I-Teams would consist of people who volunteered to be part of this process, as it would be work above and beyond their day jobs. Each team would not be considered a permanent part of the Specialty Products organization chart but would fold when their charters were accomplished. However, the concept of an ongoing structure of volunteer teams that was separate from the operations of the company was established.

Thinking that we would get enough volunteers following the creativity workshop to establish three or four I-Teams, we were shocked to learn that 26 I-Teams had been chartered by senior leaders to operate over the coming year! They would address a wide range of both tactical and strategic issues, with some teams representing one functional area and others being cross-functional in their make-up. 

Providing I-Teams with a creative process to use in their work was the next step toward Enterprise Innovation. We used a version of the Discovery Process outlined earlier in this book, which continues to be a valuable way of pursuing innovative opportunities for growth. Specialty’s senior leaders also created two Discovery Teams and used this Discovery Process to explore two strategic frontiers for significant growth opportunities for their overall business. 

In one of our coaching visits during this process, we asked I-Team members to describe their experience on the I-Teams compared to being on typical project team. Nearly all of the people we asked claimed that I-Team work was a better, more enjoyable experience.

As one employee said, “When you are on a project team, you are only carrying out what the leaders want done. On an I-Team, you can do what you think is best and explore ideas that have never been considered.” 

To successfully establish innovation as a sustainable part of the Specialty Products business, we needed to make innovation a part of their culture. So Specialty’s leaders created recognition programs and built innovation into yearly objectives. But it was the “jam session” that probably had the biggest cultural impact on the Specialty employees.

For the session, each of the I-Teams was assigned exhibit space in a large meeting area and provided with a budget and professional assistance to be creative and share with the rest of the company the work they were doing. On the day of the day-long session, the atmosphere in the room can only be described as “electric.” Colorful, creative exhibits of concepts, prototypes, and innovative ideas communicated to the entire company that Specialty Products was on the move, driven by innovation. At one point during the session, several employees brought their children in to see the exciting new things that were taking place in their company.

By the end of Specialty Products’ Year of Innovation, many of the I-Teams had successfully completed their work, resulting in pipelines of new business opportunities as well as significant cost saving opportunities. There were celebrations and a look back over the road traveled and progress made in one year. Enterprise Innovation was off to a great beginning.

2016 Update: Specialty Products continues to monetize its strategy innovation portfolio for innovative growth.