by Bill Weber

As we said in an earlier post, you don’t have to change your culture, change your processes or change your organization to innovate; all you need to do is take your existing team, your existing processes and add Front End Innovation (FEI) discipline. The key question an executive needs to consider in this context is how much of Front End success is dependent on their involvement. The short answer is: a lot.

Dr. Peter Koen—who coined the term “Front End Innovation”—began researching the subject in 1998 and worked on long-term projects with both the National Science Foundation and the Industrial Research Institute. One of his key findings is that senior management commitment to the Front End is the single most important variable in its success or failure. This has also been our experience.

Over the last eleven years, iP2Biz completed hundreds of Front End projects with major manufacturing companies. Some of these companies were innovation pros, and others were struggling. But despite the different innovation environments, the vast majority of these projects had two things in common: (1) they produced interesting, actionable results, and (2) these results had an impact outside the small team that produced them only where there was strong executive involvement. The reason for this is straight-forward.

The outcome of the FEI process as applied to any single idea is uncertain, and you will have a number of failed ideas for every idea that becomes a commercial success. Given this, executive support at the highest levels is absolutely critical: you must have someone committed to the process who

  • Understands FEI,
  • Understands the necessity for rapid iteration and learning, and
  • Has the authority and audacity, sometimes under intense pressure, to maintain support for the process with vision, strategy, climate and—most importantly—resources.

Said differently, if you fail to nourish FEI with strong executive leadership, the powerful forces deployed in support of the Formal Process will starve it: as most of us have heard a CFO say at one time or another, “I’m tired of spending money on all this experimentation; let’s put our resources around things we know will work right now.” That attitude can produce significant wins in the short term, but if a company follows this advice exclusively over a five year period, it may find itself in a hole that is too deep to escape.

If executive participation and support is critical, how much time does it take to do the job right? The answer to this question is obviously highly variable, but we can provide some guidelines. As we have said in earlier posts, FEI is an iterative, three-stage process: Envision → Investigate → Decide. Executive participation in FEI projects is most important in the Envision stage and declines, as it should, as the project moves from strategy into the Formal Process.

Exec v Team in FEIIn the Envision phase of FEI, there is a strong need for in-depth knowledge of a broad array of company competencies and of the company’s strategic goals. Executives—because their jobs demand it—also tend to have a deep understanding of the Technologies-Industries-Markets (TIM) ecosystem where new products are launched, an understanding which, as we have written previously, is critical to the success of any innovation effort. Without these integrated perspectives, functional line-managers may strike out in directions that sound good on paper but do not support the company’s long-term objectives, its capabilities or exploit its position in the TIM landscape.

Further, executive sponsorship at the early stages provides the FEI team with critical, but sometimes overlooked, moral support. The core members of an innovation team are often working on FEI projects while continuing to execute on their every-day responsibilities; it’s important that they know the company cares about the FEI project, and there is no better way to do this than having a truly engaged executive.

Finally, the engaged executive can also be the critical decision-maker who understands and communicates that putting an evidence-based stop to an FEI project is not a failure; instead, getting to a smart “no” with a minimal expenditure of resource is a victory.

As the team moves into the Investigation phase, the earlier strategic focus gives way to more mundane, but no less important, tasks: gathering the information necessary to make a decision about committing additional resources to the idea or quickly killing it off and trying something else. This is the phase where more team members may be drafted and preparation begins for a potential commercialization push.

Finally, in the Decide stage, executive involvement is critical, direct and straight-forward. The FEI team has gathered enough information to make a funding decision, the information must be reviewed and the executive must make a decision she is prepared to defend with the rest of the C-Suite. Go or no go?

Research and experience has shown us that the right kind of executive involvement is critical to FEI success. The Front End demands broad, strategic thinking in its early stages and bold, committed protection from the forces of the Formal Process in its later stages, perspectives and power that only an executive can deliver. If your Front End process is not delivering the results you want, increasing executive involvement can make a big difference.

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