By Boris Pluskowski, Senior VP Customer Success and Innovation Strategies, Mindjet

When discussing innovation, Google’s Hamish Nicklin said “forget the tech,” and suggested companies focus on building a culture of innovation. Whilst it’s true that this type of culture should be a priority for every business, technology also has a role to play in encouraging and developing people’s creative ideas. In fact we find that companies who place culture hand in hand with innovation experience powerful organisational change.

What comes first – culture or technology?

Put simply – you need both to work symbiotically. Without technology, investment in innovation could be wasted. Technology can be used to support the growth of an innovation culture through visibility, feedback and demonstrable outcomes. Unilever has done this by creating a new online crowdsourcing hub which captures collaborative ideas from around the company as well as externally.

If you feel your company already has a great innovation culture, it may be worth considering whether it’s being leveraged to its full potential. Technology, from simple enterprise social networks, to more advanced solutions, such as Mindjet’s Spigit, can facilitate collaboration. This helps colleagues to work on each other’s existing ideas and develop them further, regardless of their location in the world. If desired, they can also be used for open innovation, which is when you invite people outside of your organisation to submit ideas.

For example, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, ran an external innovation programme in which refugees and partners from all around the world were invited to submit ideas on how to solve language problems for refugees in new communities. The challenge lasted for seven weeks and involved more than 850 UNHCR staff and partner organisations, leading to the generation of 114 ideas.

Securing investment for your innovation

The first step is to secure senior buy-in. You will need the C-suite to agree to invest time and money in the innovation programme, and you can only succeed in this if you are able to demonstrate a business need. Firstly, you need to tightly align your innovation programme to corporate strategy and if possible, obtain a direct / indirect line of sight into key issues being addressed at an executive level in the company. This will help you generate a steady flow of real business challenges while also gathering the commitment and capability to execute the results of those challenges. By executing and proving the ROI, you’ll be able to secure further investment in your programme.

Another key to getting senior support is the guarantee of demonstrable ROI. Many leaders see innovation as difficult to measure, but the good thing is that some innovation tools now allow you to access data which demonstrates the effectiveness of your innovation programme. Being able to guarantee this data will help you secure investment from the C-suite as they will be able to directly trace their ROI.

Build an excited crowd

Think of the promotion of your latest innovation challenge as an internal marketing campaign. You need to consider all the same things you would do for a traditional internal marketing campaign. For instance, who your target audience is, what types of communication they respond to best (e.g. a leave behind or email communication), how many times you should communicate to them about an innovation challenge and consider when the best time to engage them is. By applying marketing best practice to innovation you can maximise awareness of your programme. If you know staff are most engaged at 11am on a Tuesday, announce it then!

You also need to give your innovation programme a personality. For example, MetLife decided to brand their innovation software as “Linus”, to fit in with the company’s Peanuts theme. Remember Snoopy the dog? Linus is the thoughtful, bright and well-informed character from the series, so it makes sense to name an innovation portal after him, giving the platform real personality, rather than just another website that employees need to log on to. Other companies have left ambiguous clues around the office, building intrigue without giving too much away ahead of a big innovation challenge launch.

The tech is ready and people are suitably excited – what now?

With the senior leadership team on-board, the crowd excited and the technology ready, it’s time for the big reveal. You now have the opportunity to communicate to your audience about the objectives of the challenge – make the tasks clear, reiterate the incentives and the importance of the initiative to the business. You may already have a strong culture of innovation, but it’s about implementing a new way of working which feels easy and intuitive to the employee without taking them too far away from their day-to-day role.

Of course, there are always those who struggle to adapt to change, part of this may be down to people viewing innovation as a “time wasting” or intangible activity, taking up valuable working time. It’s up to managers to communicate how much time should be dedicated to innovation each day and encourage their teams. Companies like Google and 3M have normalized the culture of 20% time, where employees can choose which innovative projects to spend their time on. That might be a big commitment for your company, but that will depend on the definition and importance you associate with building an innovation culture.

What next?

As mentioned earlier, the C-suite will be watching their investment carefully. Demonstrating ROI is possible with the technology you’ve deployed, however, given the nature of innovation, things don’t always go right first time. It is important that you look at innovation as a repeatable process and continue to set challenges for your crowd, as well as keeping them excited by sharing results and rewarding participants.

If you find participation waning, empower a group of super-users who are on-board with the initiative and can encourage and help their peers. Eventually, this will have a ripple effect across the business as more and more employees become engaged and learn about the potential rewards and recognition from doing so.

Self promotion is important too. By showcasing innovation successes you demonstrate your programme’s worth and reinforce a positive culture. If you focus on achieving value for your innovation programme early on, engagement will come.

By combining peer groups with visibility of progress and outcomes, effective communication and an on-board leadership team you can begin to pave the way to a powerful culture of innovation.