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Innovation Management

Engagement Is the ROI on the Front End of Innovation

Published By Guest Blogger

Practicing collaborative innovation takes time, money, and attention. Organizational leaders ask practitioners to “show me the ROI.” How does the practice benefit the organization?

In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores how engagement serves as the return on the front end of the practice—and why engagement matters.

Go with the flow

People who practice collaborative innovation intend the best. They see the practice as a way for their peers and for them to realize their potential for leadership by way of convening on the questions that matter and by way of pursuing the ideas that stem from the dialogue that follows.

People discover, too, that every enquiry—whether in the form of an innovation challenge or a World Café hosting or an immersion in design thinking—has two distinct phases: a front end phase and a back end phase.

During the front end, people convene to arrive at the question that matters: What critical question, were we to pursue it together, might lead to breakthroughs? Thinkers such as Peter Block and John Seely Brown help us navigate the front end.

During the back end, people choose to pursue certain ideas or concepts to test their potential and their viability. Thinkers such as Thomas Kelley and Taiichi Ohno help us navigate the back end.

I depict this flow in Innovation Architecture, as follows (figure 1). Reality dictates that people may not pursue enquiries in the single-threaded, sequential way in which the simplified figure suggests.

Go With Flow

Figure 1: going with the flow

What is ROI?

Convening a group of people to pursue an enquiry, no matter how critical the topic appears to their community, their organization, or them, means monopolizing a certain amount of intellectual firepower for a certain period of time. I work with clients, for example, who sponsor collaborative innovation challenges in which thousands participate. The opportunity cost matters (figure 2).

As a result, the people who lead the practice in their organization seek a compelling response when the question of “What’s the ROI for collaborative innovation?” arises.

In this article I suggest a way to approach this question that reflects the promise and the reality of the practice. I focus on the front end of innovation, in particular.

Treasure the right front-end measure

The front and back ends of innovation require different mindsets, different practices, and, as a result, different measures. The front end features open enquiry and engagement. What problem is worth solving? How do we frame the problem? Who within the larger community might offer insight into how we might frame the question and pursue the problem? What possibilities do we see to resolve the problem or more fully realize the corresponding opportunity?

By its nature, the front end does not lend itself to traditional forms of analysis that inform people’s perspective on whether an initiative is worth pursuing. Projecting a discounted cash flow from a World Café that brings together a diverse community of people working in the organization’s marketing, operations, and product management groups makes no sense.

The temporal link between the front and back ends of innovation can be tenuous: ideas take time to trial. Organizations may need a full year before they can compare projected and actual advantages from implementing a concept that began as an idea on the front end. Counting the number of ideas generated on the front end becomes a fool’s errand. Ideas do not share the uniform attributes of quality and quantity that one finds with cans of creamed corn and spinach.

Instead, the savvy practitioner teaches the organization to attend to engagement as the measure that matters at the front end of collaborative innovation.

Gallup(ing) to the rescue

No other firm has done more work than Gallup, Inc., to explore the extent to which employees engage with their respective organizations determines the financial health that that organization enjoys. Gallup’s consulting arm publishes a study of employee engagement and well-being, “The State of the Global Workplace.” People who pursue the practice of collaborative innovation should read this study.

In sum the study finds that business and work units in the top quartile of employee engagement scores enjoy 16% greater profitability, 18% greater productivity, and 12% greater levels of customer satisfaction than their peers in the bottom quartile.

Employee engagement matters.

Linking collaborative innovation and employee engagement

Gallup offers a survey instrument that they call the Q12. Twelve questions comprise the Q12. Gallup finds that how the employee responds to these questions describes the extent to which they feel engaged in their work in their organization.

The Q12 questions follow:

  • I know what is expected of me at work
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my job right
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day
  • My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important
  • I have a best friend at work
  • At work, my opinions seem to count
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • This last year, I have opportunities at work to learn and grow.
  • In the past seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • In the past six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

The characteristics that define the practice of collaborative innovation map to a number of the questions that comprise Q12. The following table highlights the links (figure 3). Each organization that practices collaborative innovation will have their own perspective on how their program maps to the survey instrument.

What now?

Consider yourself fortunate if your organization already subscribes to Gallup’s model for measuring and improving upon employee engagement. In this case, as the practice leader for collaborative innovation, you can approach the person who sponsors your organization’s work with Gallup to find a way to analyze results of the most recent Q12 by employees who participate in collaborative innovation. Participation, for example, may mean that the employee has contributed to a collaborative innovation challenge or been invited to a World Café hosted by your organization.

If your organization has not embraced Gallup’s approach, then perhaps you have an opportunity to express powerful leadership on this front by helping your peers to do so. This option becomes attractive to practice leaders who find themselves pressured to “prove the ROI” of pursuing collaborative innovation within the organization—especially in the early days, when conventional financial metrics derived from the back end of the process remain beyond reach.

To the second question of the Q12, answering “I have the materials and equipment I need to do my job right” in the affirmative may for you mean having access to Gallup’s thought leadership and resources. Ultimately, you need a way to make two links: the link between employee engagement and firm-level results, which Gallup can provide, and the link between the practice of collaborative innovation and employee engagement, which you can provide with Gallup.

An invitation to connect

I end this column with an invitation. I would very much welcome the chance to speak with readers whose organizations have embraced Gallup’s approach to assess and encourage greater employee engagement.

Has your organization embraced, too, the practice of collaborative innovation as a means to that end?

If so, what have been your results to date?

Please drop me a line or leave a comment below: I would like to learn from your experience.

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Written by Guest Blogger