My five step guide to developing an innovation engine

Ian Marks
VP R&D Innovation

The nature of innovation is spontaneous, sporadic, and serendipitous with probability far-lower than drawing the joker in a card game. You cannot command people to innovate on-demand and this makes managing innovation a trickier practice to keep consistent. However, as innovation becomes a key underpinning in every corporate growth strategy, there is an ever-growing need to ensure best practices are put in place to drive a long-term growth.

While the consensus is that innovation is critical for sustainable organizational success, many innovation leaders feel that their respective companies fall short when it comes to executing on an innovation strategy1. This belief is further highlighted despite a +3.2% increase in total R&D spend2. When I stepped into the role as Head of Innovation for GSK Consumer Healthcare nearly four years ago, I tried to address and preferably avert the pervasive risk of innovation failure. My mission was to focus on building an innovation engine that is agile, ever-expanding and can take on all innovation challenges across the company today and in the near and far tomorrow.

With that in mind, I committed myself and my team to five priorities which I think apply to any innovation team:

  1. Chase an inspiring vision: Innovation might not be controllable, but it surely can be guided and inspired. We decided to focus our innovation pursuit on an ambitious vision to “Transform the future of self-care.” This bold vision brought clarity, focus and inspiration to drive results that will enable development of new consumer relevant healthcare solutions.
  2. Fit the right talent to the right role: Forming an innovation team is an ever-evolving effort. As we identified our innovation strategy, we were able to align existing and desired talent to effectively deliver against our priorities. A key part to this approach was to identify any skill-gaps and quickly address either through adding talent to the team or relying on external support and ad-hoc collaborations.
  3. Make innovation a key priority for senior leadership: It is a balancing act to drive short-term results while maintaining the right long-term outlook to appropriately cultivate innovation. To ensure that big-bet innovation remains a priority, I have found that internal organizational advocacy is critical. Innovation strategies need supporters, and leading innovation requires that you align stakeholders - and especially senior leadership - along the entire innovation lifecycle.
  4. Fixate on measuring what matters: One of the more difficult aspect of laying the foundation for an innovation engine is defining the right KPIs for success. For my team, quantifying sales related to our innovation activity was one of the first efforts to connect innovation with bottom line measurable results. Of course, setting KPIs is a learning process that we continuously refine through experimentation with our innovation scorecard.
  5. Let failure be an option and learning a must! : A lot has been said already about the conducive power of a fail-forward culture in fostering innovation. A big focus of mine for my team is focusing on learning as the key attribute. We learn through debriefing, continuous feedback, discussions and reflections and we find that this approach diffuses the negativity associated with failure and allows us to move quicker between mistakes, insights, self-correcting and progress.

Surveys show that while most big corporations struggle with implementing a successful innovation strategy, some do get it right. Focusing on the above five priorities has helped us to be purposeful and more accurate in building our own innovation engine.

Clearly, when it comes to innovating, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. I am curious to hear the lessons that you have generated handling similar challenges.  What steps you have taken to better facilitate innovation within your organization? Please do share your experiences in the comments section.

1 https://www.strategyand.pwc.com/innovation1000#GlobalKeyFindingsTabs4|VisualTabs2

2 A recent McKinsey survey found that while 84% of corporate executives agree on the critical role of innovation in propelling growth for their company, only 6% are satisfied with their innovation performance and results (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/how-we-help-clients/growth-and-innovation)

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