Innovate Smarter – Building Innovation Programs Partnerships

by Matt Hunt

When your internal innovation development program isn’t providing the returns that you expected how do you know where to look for the source of the problem? Is it a string of bad luck in the projects that were selected?  Is it the leaders that were chosen to run the initiatives?  Is it something within the culture of the organization?  Or is it a more fundamental issue with the program itself?

Whether you are building an innovation development program from scratch or trying to improve the performance of your current program leaders can quickly feel inundated with mountains of advice. Sifting through that advice for what really “works” or what is right for your company can be a daunting task. With so many other companies on a similar journey, some organizations are trying to improve their chances for finding success by partnering to share their experiences and learn from one another.

Interview with Uri Neren, CEO of Innovators International

Recently I was able to able to meet with one organization that was built on the idea of companies learning from each other in order to successfully develop their own innovation programs.  Uri Neren is the CEO of Innovators International which he formed in partnership with 15 companies in 2007.  Today, Innovators International is a partnership of 50 global corporations who are working together to build each member their own structure for driving sustained innovation.  This is the story of Innovators International.

1.  Can you tell me more about how the organization was formed?

In 2007, my team and I were commissioned by the Mayo Clinic to study how the world’s highest growth companies structured innovation.  We worked with hundreds of Chief Technology Officers and other innovation leaders to understand their structures for innovation – what was working and not working.  As the study was ending, fifteen of these participants (mostly Fortune 500-sized companies) in our hometown of Minneapolis, MN asked us to build them a private group where they could learn from each other.  I think some asked us because they wanted our research and we were not a consultancy, but mostly because they had a need that was not being filled.  They wanted a private space (no competitors, complete confidentiality, and no vendors), active collaboration, and a forum that was focused on results and implementing solutions.  Since forming we have experimented with structures but as we found our groove we decided to expand the group.  We now include 50 of the most innovative companies from 15 countries around the world.

2.  What expectations do you have for your members?

We are a member-directed organization so the member’s expectations of each other is simple – that everyone comes to the table to: 1) share openly, 2) learn not preach, 3) maintain confidentiality, and 4) prioritize showing up at our gatherings. We manage membership by invite only and we look for companies that are truly invested in building their top-line growth practice, that have a history of changing markets and inventing things that successfully change the world.

3.  What have you learned from leading the organization over the last seven years?

Between our research, that looked at the entire market of Innovation Management practices, and our deep work with our member companies we have hit on something that is beginning to look like an Innovation Equation. The highest performing companies have 27 specific things in common –  27 innovation management practices. When combined in the right ways these practices can help top-line growth become more reliable and repeatable.  The work has busted myths like “open, sharing, friendly cultures are better for innovation.”

We actually found that this premise changes dramatically depending on the company’s other supporting mechanisms for innovation. Our stats show that structures almost always trump culture.

Another interesting data point is that innovation leaders’ number one challenge, by a factor of 15x, is selling new concepts into the organization. As we looked more deeply at this, however, the real problem was always that there was no formal path for innovation, not the innovation leader’s lack of ability to sell. And as such, companies that rely on the ability of their staff to sell new ideas tended to make the worst investment decisions.

My favorite myth though is that innovation is a “risky thing.”  The way the majority of companies are currently innovating, it is. But in fact, flipping this idea on its head is what has led a majority of high performance companies to success: they are treating innovation as a risk mitigation exercise.  Companies that treated their innovation funding like any sane investor – by diversifying and researching what will be ‘popping’ in the future extensively – did the best.

4.  What were the expectations of your members in joining Innovators International?

Most of our members joined in the beginning simply to see what others were doing and to commiserate with other big company innovation leaders who are often the outcast in their corporate culture. As we had a couple of years under our belt, some members wanted more, say to solve their specific problem, but their expectations were still modest. We wanted to help every member make measurable progress on their top innovation goal each year and have now set up structures like our Corporate Innovation Assessment which pulls from 30 of the best assessments in the market and which allows us to very smartly connect our members with each other to solve their problems. From the beginning we have been a very results-oriented group – something quite unique in our space.

Bob Wolf of Andersen Windows is an Innovators International founding member.  He noted that “We were out to build the most cutting edge structure for our top-line growth team; we wanted to make innovation a disciplined and repeatable thing.”

5.  What has been their greatest takeaway from working with these other organizations?

Innovators International has helped the majority of our members find solutions to their top innovation management challenge each year. And, many of these solutions are now implemented and helping them to create greater market results with more reliability. That is our mission first and foremost.

Some very interesting and unexpected results have been even more impactful for a few members such as gaining new partners in R&D, finding joint venture partners for a new business, and even developing products together.  These were great outcomes but we still hold that the most important thing, the reason we all want to drive innovation, is to improve market results.

Ryan Armbruster from UnitedHealth Group noted that “Members helped us find a solution to one of our biggest innovation challenges around staffing. We implemented it within six months and it is up and running. The results orientation and guidance helps us get to answers in the fastest way possible and for a fraction the cost of a consultancy.  We also feel that having 100 world thought leaders from a variety of industries helping to solve our problems is one of the most effective ways to get innovation results.”

6.  How have you seen your member organizations change since you started Innovators International?

Through our experience we have built an Innovation Maturity Curve that shows the reliability of creating market results for a company.  Most of our members have climbed up this curve over the years as they implement new structures and processes for innovation management. We’ve also seen very interesting trends like a shift in ownership of the innovation function: more and more CEOs are taking ownership, more HR leaders, and more marketing leaders. It is clearly, and for good reason, not the job of the R&D leader any longer.

7.  How do you see the organization changing over the next seven years?

We have already expanded beyond our “mammoth company” members to bring fantastic mid-cap companies like Patagonia and Quality Bicycle Products.  We also opened a couple of new seats for government organizations like NASA and the US Department of Energy last year.  Now we’d like to diversify more and include a foundation, and possibly some overseas governments like the European Commission who we invited recently.

We believe that just as a big company needs to structure their growth function to get more reliable results, a society must build in the right structures, funding, processes, and culture to get innovation to flow.  I’m excited about the time we spend with the Federal and state governments because I think the US and other developed countries are in grave danger of losing their competitive edge and innovation management can be used to solve this problem.

We have also begun to include some great new resources for our members like venture capital funds and technology sourcing partners who fund and build products and new inventions in partnership with our members. We have become the connector to all the resources an innovation leader needs.  Innovation management is quite a puzzle for anyone to solve and is doubly hard inside a large organization that designed to do the opposite.

Author Takeaway

Over my career I have seen too many organizations spend far too much time trying to build out their innovation capability with only internal resources. Some may bring in outside organizations but the external team usually includes too few people with too little knowledge of what the best course of action is. And while your internal team has an intimate knowledge of your organization and the culture they may not have a broad enough view to know “what good looks like” when building out a new innovation practice.

It seems as though Innovators International has found a better way. Based on the feedback from their member partners they are finding success by sharing the collective “innovation intelligence” from the entire group and using that intelligence to drive results.

Together with their members, Innovators International is transforming the way organizations drive innovation.

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Five Ways Organizations Lose When They Cover Up Innovation FailuresMatt Hunt is the CEO and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm Stanford & Griggs, LLC. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations. You can follow Matt on his blog and Twitter @huntm