When you don't know what you don't know

Here’s a frequent Catch-22 situation that we encounter: a program manager in a large organization is assigned to or volunteers to drive a collaborative innovation program with a high degree of urgency and expectations. However, he or she has no experience in how to make sure the program will succeed because the manager has never done it before.

Sound familiar?

Here are some good questions that program managers can consider that will help launch the program on a positive vector and prepare all stakeholders right from the start.

1.    What are the innovation objectives, type and scale? A strategic business planning exercise for business unit leaders focused on breakthrough market expansion opportunities will be very different from an ongoing, incremental cost-cutting initiative for a whole operations department. Form follows function. So with a crystal clear description of the “function,” you can more easily enable the appropriate “form” in terms of audience, timing, process, etc.

2.    How will people be encouraged to participate? In the movie “Field of Dreams” Kevin Costner turns a corn field into a baseball diamond, and all the great players from another era magically appear to play ball. Rest assured that will not happen with even the best idea-harvesting web site. So how will you motivate participation, and what’s in it for them if they participate? Hint: think about intrinsic value in relation to role and career.

3.    What ideas will be considered good ideas? The last thing you want is to have everyone fishing through a stack of random, mediocre ideas that don’t end up solving any problems or capturing any opportunities. When you define the "good idea," tell everyone to keep the ideation focused on value. And by the way, once the good ones start flowing in, how will you choose the best ideas?

4.    How will you measure program impact? Very few programs see the light of a second day or week or month if they can’t demonstrate results. Begin with the end in mind…start by characterizing the activity and impact you need to realize, and build the program to achieve it.

5.    Who’s flying the plane? You’ll need a hands-on, visible and vocal executive to get this kind of program off the ground. A good way to test his or her commitment: ask what resources will be applied to ideas that are found to be viable.

These are just a few of the key success factors. Now ask yourself, what have you learned? What can you add to the list?