Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lessons from Leading the Innovation Catalysts

I have a fantastic job that I love. I know that I'm lucky, but I also have aligned my work to my strengths and passions.

My current job is as the Leader of the Innovation Catalysts at Intuit.  I've been a part of the Innovation Catalyst program here from the very start, but have been leading the group for the past 15 months. There are currently 209 Innovation Catalysts, who each devote 10% of their time helping others to use Design for Delight (AKA Design Thinking) to innovate and get to better outcomes.  The impact of this group on our company has been enormous.  I'm not going to talk about that right now, though.

I'd like to share some other information that people seem to ask me about all the time as they consider creating their own Innovation Catalyst-type programs at their companies.

Identify what will work in your culture

You cannot just plug-and-play what we did here at Intuit.  Our Innovation Catalyst program works because our company values and cultural style is the way it is.  We have a deep passion for customers and doing the right thing for them.  We have a tradition of all employees encouraged to do "follow-me-homes" and also huge support for user research.  We have a culture that values the individual employees and the teams, with the belief that everyone can and should innovate.  This is an environment where the concept of "deep customer empathy" is familiar. Customer-Driven Innovation has been a core capability at the company since it's inception.  This is an environment where innovation is celebrated.    The Innovation Catalyst program is a grass-roots initiative with the full support of senior executives (Scott Cook, our company founder, has supported us from the very start).  We recognized that in this environment, we could leverage employees to ignite and facilitate other employees.  The idea of 10% time (unstructured time to work on whatever you are interested in) had just taken hold at the company, so we thought that if we also had 10% of some employee's time, we might be able to make an impact.

I've talked with folks from very "Engineering-Centric" or "Technology-driven" companies who have wanted to do something like the Innovation Catalysts. I point out that our exact approach won't quite work.   To be successful, you will need to lean into your own culture.

Choosing who should be Innovation Catalysts

Once you've determined that Innovation Catalysts would be successful in your culture, you'll have to identify who should be the first Innovation Catalysts.  We've learned so much over time about who to choose... and not to.

One of our earliest ah-has was that the impactful Innovation Catalysts were not only design thinkers themselves, but they were design thinkers who were motivated to "give it away".  The Innovation Cataysts aren't the ones doing the innovation work itself, they are enabling and encouraging it.  They are not the "Rockstars", they are the "Roadies".  Find people who get energy from igniting others.

Another learning was that a lone Innovation Catalyst had no where near as much success in getting others to do as an Innovation Catalyst who was part of a local "posse", who could lean on one-another.  Train multiple people who work together, so they can get some successes together.

Finally, once people are exposed to design thinking, you'll have people who naturally share what they've learned with others.  Those are the people who have already shown the behavior that you want in Innovation Catalysts.  Those are the people who will continue doing it.  Look for people who apply what they've learned by sharing it with others.

Ongoing Support of Catalysts

  • After the initial training, how do you ensure catalysts are skilled and comfortable leading efforts? We like to pair them up with an experienced Innovation Catalyst who partners with them planning and pulling off their first sessions, and to be a mentor.  They can also lean into us. We’re of the opinion that the best way to learn is through experience, so we just encourage them to jump in and try.  They may NOT be the most skilled, it’s a trade-off. They become skilled over time.
  • What other skills beyond innovation design skills have you found you need to teach (i.e. influence, facilitation, project management)? Early on we discovered that we really needed to learn professional facilitation skills (you know, after having one-too-many teams with melt-downs that we weren’t prepared for).  So, we’ve brought in a world-class facilitator to teach facilitation.  That is our “level 2” training.  We offer it after Innovation Catalysts have at least 16 hours of facilitation experience as an Innovation Catalyst.  Basically, we find that it is way more impactful if you have personally experienced facilitation challenges and difficult teams/people.  We’re piloting a “level 3” training right now that includes influencing and agreements, along with advanced coaching training (over a 12 week period).
  • We also have a full-time “coordinator” (Jennifer) to help Innovation Catalysts and others to plan and pull-off sessions.  We found that some of the barriers people had early on were ridiculous – people couldn’t find conference rooms to work in, people didn’t have sticky notes, people didn’t know where to find customers to bring in, etc.  So, we hired Jennifer to make sure that none of those simple things got in the way.

 Reporting & Getting Organizational Buy-in

  • What are all the things you guys track?  Are there certain things that certain folks are particularly interested in? When we started, our key metric was time. How much time were catalysts helping others to do D4D? This has changed now to outcomes/impact.  We still do track the # of employees that Innovation Catalysts have helped use D4D, but the number is wildly inaccurate and we give that caveat.
  • What do you report back to directors and GMs of the catalysts? Currently? Nothing.  I do send a report each quarter to the managers of Innovation Catalysts. I also roll up to some key stories that get shared at our OPS reviews. 

  • What are the most important metrics for success for your leadership? We’ve been told by our most senior executives not to worry about tracking metrics, they know that it’s have a huge impact on our culture and the way we work.  That said, I track the overall impact (via stories and outcomes) and folks are always delighted to get the details.  For example, I was just pinged about a bullet point in an OPS review slide that mentioned that Innovation Catalysts had a $50M+ impact in the last 6 months.  They were wondering if that number was too high. I was able to say that the number was actually low, and pointed them to only 3 projects that combined added up to a $50M increase in revenues.  And, of course, I have about 30 of those types of stories from this year…  

My top 10 list of advice for starting out

1.     Start small and learn from it
2.     Make sure ICs have “posses” or clusters of ICs working in the same area so they can rely on one another (a single catalyst all alone will find it hard to be impactful)
3.     Set clear expectations and hold people to them
4.     Don’t expect too much, though. They have their day-jobs!
5.     Create a mechanism that allows them to lean on each other.
6.     Be pro-active on following up to find out the longer-term impact of activity
7.     Celebrate even the tiny successes
8.     Share their stories frequently
9.     Teach them that tools are just tools, and if they aren’t working in the moment they need to solve for the team, not the tool.
10. Go where you are loved. Build up your successes, don’t try to fight resistance up front.

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