APQC’s 10 Best Practices for Innovation – Part 1

by Becky Partida of APQC

Organizations are facing mounting pressure to innovate in order to spur growth and increase the bottom line. Despite belief to the contrary, the invention of new products and services does not occur spontaneously. There is a process involved, and organizations can take practical steps to ensure that their innovation processes yield maximum value.

APQC has identified 10 key elements in the innovation processes at IBM Corporation, Kennametal Inc., and Mayo Clinic that make these organizations best-in-class for innovation.

In this two-part series, we will look at the 10 elements and dive into how the three best-practice organizations have incorporated the elements into their innovation processes. This first installment of the series focuses on the first five elements:

  • Drive innovation from the top and bottom.
  • Cross traditional organizational boundaries to help innovation thrive.
  • Strategically select opportunity areas through the eyes of your customers.
  • Distinguish among different types of innovation.
  • Cast the net wide for ideas.

Drive innovation from the top and bottom

It is a given that leadership support for innovation is important. Without this support, few resources would be allocated to these efforts. However, support from employees who work closely with customers is important, as well. Without buy-in from these employees, it is difficult to source ideas and embed a culture of innovation throughout the enterprise.

Thus, support from both the top and the bottom is of the utmost importance to innovation. Securing buy-in from front-line employees while aligning innovation efforts with top-down strategy enables relevant ideas to surface and be taken through to production or implementation.

For several years, IBM has stressed that innovation is the responsibility of every employee. However, it recently shifted innovation accountability to focus more on employees who engage regularly with customers. This shift has given front-line employees greater decision making power regarding innovation. However, even with the spreading of accountability, IBM holds that senior level sponsorship is vital to ensure that the organization maintains support, guidance, and direction for innovation.

Cross traditional organizational boundaries

Innovation is not isolated to specific areas within an organization. The best-practice organizations identified by APQC encourage innovation within areas of the business that may not normally be associated with innovative thought. They also facilitate innovation by creating collaborative teams comprised of members from multiple business units.

Collaboration is vital to Mayo Clinic’s innovation strategy. The organization has established cross functional innovation teams that meet regularly to analyze ideas generated by staff members and to identify strategic targets for innovative projects. Separate leadership teams, made up of physicians and non-physicians, also meet to brainstorm and execute new projects. These collaborative teams have generated ideas for new products and services, suggested quality improvements, and designed new business models for the organization.

In addition to the responsibility for innovation placed on each employee, IBM includes innovation as part of each business unit’s strategic focus. IBM has also established an Integration and Values Team, made up of more than 300 leaders, that meets regularly to discuss important issues and innovations across business units.

Select opportunity areas using customer input

The best practice organizations identified by APQC make a point of gathering customer feedback, determining customer requirements, and aligning their processes with the customer in mind. By keeping customers front and center throughout the process, organizations can tailor innovations to their target audiences. In the end, the creation of new products and services means nothing if the organization isn’t giving customers what they want.

Kennametal is a maker of tooling, engineered components, and advanced materials consumed in the manufacturing process. It considers innovation to be a constant process focused on the demands of the market. The organization has developed the term “exciters” to describe innovations that are radical in that they satisfy unarticulated needs. The organization connects with customers at regular intervals to determine where the potential for exciters exists.

IBM has implemented a program called First of a Kind that relies on customer input for solution development. In the program, IBM conducts research in a customer’s own environment and applies technologies that it feels are appropriate solutions for the customer. The First of a Kind program allows IBM to tailor solutions to the customer’s needs; the customer then can apply, modify, and further develop the solutions as appropriate.