On Implementing an Innovation Plan with Steve Sponseller


My friend Steve Sponseller is an Innovation Strategist and an Intellectual Property attorney.

During the past 25 years, Steve has worked with over 1000 innovators at a wide variety of technology companies - from startups to the larger members of the Fortune 500.

I recently had a chance to talk with Steve about his thoughts on implementing an innovation plan to effectively identify and apply the creative talents of all personnel.

Here is the conversation with Steve:

Rajesh: What is a common problem you see businesses make when executing an innovation plan?

Steve: Many businesses limit creative and innovative activities to just a few people, such as the scientists, engineers, and developers in the organization. This is a mistake and may restrict the creation of new ideas. I know it seems natural to focus the innovation process on groups with technical or scientific training because these people have the specific expertise necessary to create the products and services offered by the company.

So, why would you want to distract the scientists and engineers with ideas from other parts of the business? Every person in an organization has unique experiences, particular training and their own view of the world. Even if they don't have technical or scientific training, they can still make valuable contributions to the innovation process. These people may not be providing technical expertise, but can offer a different perspective that often results in the development of valuable ideas.

Rajesh: How can people who are not directly involved in the creation of the company's products and services provide innovative ideas?

Steve: The fact that a person is not in the product development group can be a real advantage.

These people offer a fresh perspective and new ideas that are often missed by the people who are hyper-focused on developing new products. In many cases, the product developers are so focused on the details of the development, they have a hard time stepping back to see the big picture.

I've been in many situations where a person without any technical expertise offers a suggestion for a new feature that the product developers had never considered. The person with the suggestion was not involved in the development process, so they were not worried about how the feature could be implemented. In many cases, these suggestions can be implemented by the development team, which creates a more valuable product for the company.

Rajesh: Why should business leaders include all departments in the innovation process?

Steve: Each department in a company sees different types of problems and interacts with customers in different ways. For example, the sales department has direct contact with potential customers and may learn what products (or product features) are most desirable to potential customers. This knowledge is valuable when brainstorming ideas for new products or product features.

The customer service department learns about customer frustrations and common problems with the company's products or services. Frequent customer problems provide a wonderful "innovation opportunity" to modify the existing products or services to improve the customer experience.

And, everyone in the company, regardless of which department they work in, can watch for news stories, articles and social media posts related to the company or the industry. This information may identify gaps in the industry or potential problems with the company's products. Encourage everyone on your team to watch for this type of information and share it with the company leaders.

Rajesh: What advantages have you seen in companies that involve their entire team when identifying innovations?

Steve: I have seen many situations where an unexpected person came up with a brilliant idea that resulted in a new product or the improvement of an existing product.

I remember one meeting when I was discussing an invention for one of the company's products. The invention was a new user interface that allowed customers to easily find specific television shows recorded by the device. When discussing the details of the invention with the software developers, another person at the meeting who had no technical training suggested that the invention could also be used on another line of products. The software developers had strange expressions on their faces and finally said, "Yes, that's a great idea. We never thought of that."

I see this happen all the time. Someone who is not focused on the details of implementing the innovative idea provides a fresh perspective that produces more valuable ideas for the company.

Rajesh: What's the best way to start involving everyone in the innovation process?

Steve: I recommend starting with one or two small innovation teams. Each innovation team should have five or six members from different parts of the company. A typical innovation team may have one or two people from the engineering/development team, someone from the customer service department, another person involved in sales, someone from the marketing group and another from the production/distribution team.

A diverse innovation team with people from different parts of the business provides a wide range of experiences and often creates a broad range of innovative ideas.

Start with one or two innovation teams, then add more teams as you see success. As your innovation activities continue to expand, you will develop an innovation culture throughout the company.