Strong internal and external communication programs are important at any time for an organization, but they are outright critical in today's corporate efforts for innovation.
There are two key reason for this:
1) You need to link the value of your products and services (the innovation outcomes) with the communication efforts to get the best results. This is quite obvious.
2) It is, however, not just about innovation outcomes. Today, you also need to promote and even brand your corporate innovation capabilities as you work to build the best innovation ecosystems possible through successful networking and strategic influencing.
To move forward, people need to know where to go and how to get there. This is what I cover in this lengthy post starting with three reasons why communication is a critical element if you want to succeed with external collaboration or open innovation.
“We are in the matchmaking business.” This quote came from Chris Thoen, former managing director of the Global Open Innovation office at P&G. Chris also stated that one of the key objectives of open innovation is to become the preferred partner of choice. As with any kind of matchmaking, you must strive to find the best possible partner and that requires being able to articulate your propositions in an attractive manner. This is very much about communication.
Find and be found. Let the ecosystem in your region—as well as globally—know what you are doing. Tell about your open innovation initiatives, share your learnings, and ask for input. Messages with substance move very fast within such ecosystems. This can help a company to be perceived as a preferred partner of choice or at least as a company with a potential for this to happen. You need to find the right partners, but it would be great if they also came to you, right? Think of the differences in an archer versus a magnet approach.
Open innovation needs to become top of mind within organizations; not just within innovation teams. By now, many innovation teams understand the value of open innovation and those that do not will soon learn the hard way. It is a tougher challenge making the rest of the company fully understand and buy into the value of open innovation. Nevertheless, this has to happen for them to change mindsets and behaviors and thus be able to fully support open innovation and benefit from this. This is very much about communication.
As they embrace open innovation, companies should develop a communication strategy for their innovation efforts. A key reason for this is that knowing the strategic goals motivates people and builds a collective sense of purpose. Since the innovation team is the driver of the innovation strategy, they should also be the driver of the development of this communication strategy. A strong partnership should exist between the innovation team and the corporate communications team to assure the strongest possible execution of the strategy.
The communication strategy should be aligned with the overall purposes and the mandate for the innovation efforts and you should also develop specific communication points of view for your - different - external stakeholder groups as well as within the internal functions and business units.
Not so long ago, when we talked about the intersection of innovation and communication in the forms of PR, branding and promotion, this was all about the innovation outcomes (products and services). The sales and marketing functions dealt with this so the innovation people did not really have to focus on communication. As innovation becomes more and more holistic this is changing. You can no longer just innovate in the R&D unit and then let other functions take over. It is all tied together and the communication skills needed to bring innovation to market are getting increasingly important.
Now, corporate innovation teams that really care about their success rate pay more attention to what happens after they let go of their work. The best communicators are often those who created the product or service – if they did their job well (focused on getting a job done for a paying customer). If so, they need to be involved in how to position and sell the innovation as it enters the value chain and eventually hits the customers or end-users.
What can corporate innovation teams – and innovators in general – do to improve their communication skills? Here are my views:
Get started: This sounds obvious, but it is kind of scary to witness the number of corporate innovation teams with no focus on the communication aspect of their corporate innovation capabilities. They have no idea why this even matters and as such they don’t have any strategy or tactical tools to work with. They don’t develop their skills and mindset either.
Have a clear message that resonates with the audience: Too often, corporate functions involved with innovation efforts are too caught up in the own world and thus they communicate with their own terms and words even though this might not resonate with the audience. You need to see the bigger picture and go beyond your own small world.
Some might argue that this is why you let corporate communications teams do the work as they are trained for this. This is true, but only to some degree. The biggest problem here is that corporate communication people don’t really know about innovation and how this happens. This lack of understanding can create problems internally as well as externally.
Use a range of communication tools: Since most corporate innovation teams are not trained communicators (and definitely not in the broad sense that I advocate for), they might assume this is just about exposure on their intranet and in traditional media channels. They need to go beyond this and three unconventional ways for many would be the use of stakeholder management, networking and social media. We should not get caught up in semantics here, but yes, I think the first two can be categorized as communication tools if used properly.
Combine internal and external focus: Communication has become trickier for corporate innovation teams in the era of open innovation as they need to communicate internally as well as externally. A key reason for internal communication is that you can make good things happen faster if your employees believe that they are ready for innovation. A key reason for external communication is that you need to court many different partners in your efforts to become the preferred partner of choice within the innovation ecosystems that are relevant for your current - and future - industry.
Sometimes you can and should combine both with the reasoning that it is easier to get good internal progress if employees can read or hear about their innovation efforts in the outside world. Perception is a powerful element when creating a strong corporate culture that is dynamic and agile.
In a presentation I heard by Jeff Boehm, a former VP of Invention Machine, the innovation software company, he very smartly outlined a four-step process for keeping the need for focusing on innovation constantly in the forefront of employees’ minds through smart communications. Here are his steps with some elaboration from me:
• Positioning: Make it relevant and show success. To keep people on track when it comes to pursuing open innovation, they need to understand why it matters to the well-being of the organization they’re part of. One of the best ways to show why open innovation is relevant is to tout success stories. These won’t be available early on but when forward progress is made, make sure everyone knows about it. More talk and buzz about successes will help bring in more – and better – partners and it will help the innovation team tear down internal obstacles. If you read about successful work done by colleagues, you are more likely to be positive when the innovation team asks for your involvement and contribution.
• Promotion: Make it obvious. Having a communications strategy and plan in place to promote open innovation is vital. Constantly reinforcing messages about the purpose of open innovation and the desired outcomes will assure that employees understand just how important it is.
• Calls to action: Make it easy. This builds on the above. Keep the messages clear and simple to better allow your people to engage in and thus learn about open innovation.
• Sustain momentum: Make it stick. When open innovation is first introduced in a business, it is possible some people may conclude that it is another “flavor of the month” initiative sent down from on high. This is particularly apt to occur if an organization has a track record of introducing new strategies only to abandon them a short while later.
This cannot be allowed to happen with open innovation. Actions from the top combined with strong communications must continually show that open innovation is here to stay and will be a continuous focus of company efforts. In other words, do everything possible to build open innovation into your company’s culture.
Here are some key activities to undertake as you develop a plan for both internal and external communication about your innovation activities:
• Begin by evaluating the current perception of the value that the innovation group brings to internal and external stakeholders with regard to the overall innovation process in the company. This includes interviews with relevant partners. This will let you know how strong your current positioning is and where there are misconceptions or negative viewpoints held by key audiences that you need to overcome going forward.
• Develop an overview of goals, objectives and milestones for the communication efforts for the innovation team.
• Identify internal and external stakeholders and work on value propositions and elevator pitches for the different stakeholders and target groups.
• Develop – and activate - a communication platform based on the goals and objectives of the communication efforts for the innovation team. This includes identification of sources for good ”story-telling” and an overview – and the following deployment - of channels and tools relevant for the communication efforts.
There is a lot of talk about the mindset and skills we need to be successful today and in the future. The combination of communication and innovation capabilities is a clear winner to me.
Stefan is an acclaimed author, keynote speaker, advisor and entrepreneur. He is a global thought leader on leadership in general and corporate innovation management in particular, he travels around the world to interact with executives and corporate innovation teams who want to take their innovation capabilities and efforts to the next level. The Silicon Valley mindset is key for this to happen. This mindset is rooted in one word: impact. By leveraging new technologies, talent, strong ecosystems, agile leadership, and ingenious approaches to business, Silicon Valley impacts entire industries in ways that shape the world. For a company to thrive—or even survive—in the next decade, its leaders will need to understand the Silicon Valley mindset and be able to put it to work. He helps executives on this through his Silicon Valley Fast Track venture. Stefan completed his entrepreneurial background in A.P. Møller Shipping School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Sloan School of Management. For more information about the Silicon Valley Fast Track, please visit: www.siliconvalleyft.com.