Innovation catalysts help to solve the Corporate Innovation Problem

frankmattes Advisory, Thought Leadership

Are you asking yourself … ‘How could my company energize the innovation power of the whole organization?’

Then this article is for you.

Many companies are heavily investing in their innovation activities but are dissatisfied with the results. We call this the Corporate Innovation Problem™ (Note: For easier reading, we skip the TM-sign in the rest of this article)

We found that there are three root causes (see HERE). To solve one of the root causes, the ‘systems’ problem, we have developed a unique model. The foundations of this model are academic research initiated at MIT and Best Practices in what the researchers did not cover (see more on the foundation of our model HERE).

Our model goes by the acronym ENGAGE (for more details see HERE), where each letter stands for one of the six key components. So one could say: Solve the Corporate Innovation Problem – ENGAGE the organization.

In this post we look at the second component.

Measuring engagement for innovation

Usually, companies say that having ideas is not their core problem in the early phase of innovation.

Rather, we hear two questions over and over again:

  1. How can we raise and sustain the engagement for innovation within the company?
  2. And how can we make sure that this energy is directed towards where the company should go?

But first, a fundamental question: How does one measure the engagement for innovation within the company?

In the light of consensus that is around customer experience, customer-centricity, Design Thinking and agile work styles we have found that one easy (although not perfect) metric is the number of customer experiments conducted.

With this we assume that there is a more or less structured process in place which,

  • identifies customer pain points,
  • comes up with many potential solution ideas,
  • selects the best ideas and
  • turns them into rapid prototypes which are then
  • discussed with customers based on a formal experimental setting (i.e. the question is not: ‘Do you like this?’ but rather ‘We have understood that you aim at … We feel that this might help … What is good, what needs to be improved?’)

The good thing about adopting this metric in the company’s innovation KPI set is that it not only measures customer-centricity and the use of agile work styles.

Adopting this metric in the company’s innovation KPIs not only measures customer-centricity and the use of agile practices. It drives a change…

A company starting to use this metric recognizes that a significant increase cannot be achieved without broadening the base of ‘innovators’.

Which then very soon leads to good discussions about how the broadening of the base can be achieved.

Our ENGAGE model states that six dimensions need to be considered in a company’s holistic innovation system. The second dimension – which we address in this blog post – is about installing ‘soft’, ‘overlaying’ structures that stimulate the engagement of a broad base of innovators and connect it to the strategic innovation directions of the company.

Why networks of innovation catalysts matter

Academic research found that differences in individual creativity and intelligence matter far less for innovation than connections and networks. Networked employees can realize their innovations and make them catch on more quickly than can isolated geniuses.

That is one of the reasons why companies from diverse industries such as Chemicals, Software and Aerospace have found that an internal network of ‘innovation catalysts’ is key to raise and sustain the innovation engagement. Designed properly, this network of catalysts is also fundamental in getting the message across about where the company will go with its innovation efforts and to align the ideas generated.

Since new ideas seem to spur more new ideas, networks generate a cycle of innovation. Furthermore, effective networks allow people with different kinds of knowledge and ways of tackling problems to cross-fertilize ideas. By focusing on getting the most from innovation networks, leaders can therefore capture more value from existing resources, without launching a large-scale change-management program.

Or, in other words: If you share our opinion that a behavorial change is at the core of improving Return On Innovation – the network of catalysts drives it.

Three key questions in designing a network of innovation catalysts

Shaping innovation networks is both an art and a science. In order to make a network of innovation catalysts work, the conditions need to be established that allow for growth end energy. Think about fertile ecosystems.

In practice this means that three questions have to be answered very clearly:

  1. What types of people should be in the network?
  2. Which skills do they need to have and how will learning be organized?
  3. How should this network connect with leadership and the innovator base?

Selecting the right people

Studying Best Practices we have found that there are four factors for selecting the right people for a network of innovation catalysts:

  1. The network is supposed to be a way to extend the action of corporate leadership and the corporate innovation team throughout the large and complex organization. It is also to be a way to involve all employees and managers and to get feedback on how priorities and corporate innovation actions are perceived or implemented. In other words, for every major function and every corporate site, at least one innovation catalyst is needed.
  2. People with a broad perspective who are able to ‘connect the dots’ are needed. It turns out that high customer-centricity and an inclination to solve problems with colleagues rather than depending solely on their own genius is favorable. And if the catalysts are supposed to coach others in innovation, they need to have an outgoing personality and good people skills.
  3. Since the catalysts are supposed to inspire other by their example it is helpful to select people who are influential even though they are not in the top ranks of the hierarchy. As a rule of thumb, catalysts should be closer to the bottom of the organization than the top.
  4. And finally, since the network of catalyst is also supposed to inspire itself, it would be ideal if the individual catalysts would have different approaches to innovation (e.g. strong customer advocates, strong ideators, strong solution finders, experts in key innovation topics and people with a clear view on corporate bottlenecks in scaling up solutions).

Skills of the catalysts

In the Best Practices that we have analyzed we have found that innovation catalysts need to have four base skills:

  1. Design Thinking
  2. Business Thinking (Customer centricity, focusing on the right business models, translating ideas into meaningful sustainable business offers, bringing positive net value to both customers and the customers)
  3. Systems Thinking (Identifying and understanding dependencies and the wider ecosystem of problems and solutions, focusing on the right point of view)
  4. Innovation leadership (Doing things right, applying the right innovation methods and means, executing agile plans, involving the right resources, and facilitating collaborative approaches and creating the conditions for others to thrive creatively).

Usually, the members of the innovation catalyst network receive some intensive training on these issues which is also important to ensure that ‘one language’ is spoken. But providing the skill base for the catalyst does not end there. Leading companies have their corporate innovation team organize regular meetings and workshops for the catalysts. These workshops and meetings …

  • help to keep a strong link within the community
  • are used to train the catalysts on methods
  • help in passing messages on the priorities for the company
  • support exchange of best practices
  • drive work in a collaborative manner on emerging key topics such as how the company should drive the Digital agenda

Connecting the catalysts to leadership and the innovator base

From a leadership point of view, expectations and the role of the catalyst network needs to be well-formulated. Companies which we consider to be leading with respect to innovation catalyst networks use statements like these:

  • Communication of corporate innovation ambitions and priorities as well as of practical information (events, benchmarks, etc.).
  • Proximity support to the innovator base: Methodology, training, business view, preparation of files before decision gates, etc.
  • Inspiring the local innovator base: Motivating people to post ideas, organizing idea generation campaigns, performing the first level of screening, managing the portfolio, etc.
  • Escalation in a timely way proposals requiring corporate innovation intervention and support.

From the view of the innovator base, the role of the innovation catalyst network is often stated to be a on-demand resource by helping …

  • to get deeper insights and inspiration for innovations
  • to think outside of the box and reframe their ideas
  • to help them experiment faster, to learn faster

Scaling up the network of innovation catalysts

Once the network of innovation catalysts has gained some momentum it is not unusual to see some people volunteering to become part of this network. Their motivation is typically …

  • to be regarded as an expert and called upon to inspire others to do amazing things
  • to observe other projects and areas in which the company is innovating
  • to be part of a broader community of like-minded design thinkers, provocateurs and incredibly creative people and to stay on the cutting edge with modern methods and tools

In scaling up the innovation catalysts, these people can be very helpful. However, leading companies have observed that a significant scale-up (i.e. going from 9 or 17 to 100 catalysts) requires a dedicated initiative with strong Top Management support (see more HERE ).

Firstly, this means sourcing from a broader pool of talent, i.e. going deeper into departments and creating a small dedicated team to support the catalysts. Furthermore, the ‘second wave’ catalysts need not only to drive the day-to-day ideation level but also the meta-level, i.e. the very workings of the catalyst network concept to improve it.

As one manager puts it, ‘We not only needed people who were design thinkers, we also needed people with passion to roll out the concept and help others to do great work, versus coming up with a great idea and bringing it to others.’

And secondly, middle management of the organization must also be engaged. The world of the middle manager can be tough: Squeezed in the middle to execute many corporate initiatives, being held to account for operational excellence while at the same time being encouraged to be innovative. In this context, mid-level managers might be intimidated to start the process, or hesitate to try something with which they had little experience.

The challenge in engaging mid-level management is to present a win-win. Experience shows that this can be managed by agreeing that catalysts are focusing on the managers’ biggest issues and the collaboration between manager and catalyst aimed at coming up with 2-4 visible and high-impact wins a year.

About is an international agency focused on solving the ‘Corporate Innovation Problem™’. To achieve this, we provide consulting services based on proven, best-in-class methodology which in many cases is proprietary. The services are delivered by experienced innovation management specialists and by subject-matter experts.

Please get in touch with us if you want to improve the outcomes of innovation investments.