How to Manage Innovation Within Your Company

Good-Idea

IDC - a technology analyst firm - recently held a Twitter discussion about the way companies manage innovation. As the Product Manager for Ideas here at salesforce.com, I was asked to participate -- and of course, I did, because I believe harnessing innovation in the right way is crucial for businesses today.

In an era of global competition, innovation gives your company an edge; on the other hand, failing to harness new ideas and trends can spell disaster. Check out my answers to IDC’s questions, below -- and leave your own in the comments!  

Q1: What does innovation mean to your business?

Q1IDCWithout innovation, a company will stay in one place.  Without getting ideas from those closest to your product or service - customers, employees, and partners -- it's very difficult for you to create new products and services people will actually use, or improve existing ones as your business changes.

Community innovation can help you connect with customers, partners, and employees in a meaningful way.

As a company, to continuously succeed at innovation, you need to bring in -- and do -- two kinds of ideas:

  • Incremental improvements to existing processes & offerings 
  • Bold, leapfrog changes to your product, vision, or business model 

Big, bold changes get you ahead in the marketplace -- and keep you there. Meanwhile, commitment to incremental, visible improvements encourages a culture of innovation -- employees feel safer giving big suggestions when they know their smaller ones are heard and acted on.  In the long run, your best big ideas will come from smaller suggestions that grew into something much greater - and from people who are confident they'll be listened to. At Salesforce, innovation drives our connection to our customers; in many ways, innovation - with and for customers - is our business. 

Q2: What are the key business requirements to harness innovation?  

Idea1There are many, many things needed to harness creativity (innovation & new ideas) to make your business stronger - far too many to be named in a Tweet, or even a blog post! However, a few things do stand out: 

  • Executive Support: Executive support has to be highly visible. Perhaps you need an EVP to create ideas, or your VP of customer service to reply to comments on your ideation platform. 
    For example: When we began using Chatter here at Salesforce, Marc personally commented on random employee’s profile pages, asking them to add photos and give opinions. Knowing our CEO was on board gave everyone else the freedom to get involved. 
  • Process: To innovate, you need fresh ideas. how will you bring them in? What will you do with them once you have them? How will you message back to the users? What will you do with impossible or implausible ideas? How will you manage new innovations?
    Without a game plan, it’s hard to succeed at innovation. (Check out this post for more on creating a successful ideation management process). 
  • Platform: Can you link innovations to the accounts, users, or departments they come in from? When your sales and service organizations look at a customer record, can you tell if the customer is a community member, and helping you innovate? Can you get metrics on engagement over time? It’s easy to get started with ideation, and you need a great ideation platform to get the most out of your community. 
  • Letting Go: Only excited people create great ideas -- and people are most excited when they feel they own the process, and that you’re listening to them. Ultimately, this means you need to get the technology and support right, then stand back and let your community talk. Giving up control over the dialogue can be very difficult, especially if that dialogue is on a public website - but if users feel censored, they often take their conversation to social or private channels, where you may not even see the conversation, or have a way to respond to (or benefit from) it. 

Q3: What role does communication play in the innovation process?

IDCQ3Innovation is what happens when your users talk about a bunch of ideas & iterate on the best ones. You may have a lot of ideas, but it ultimately takes a village -- or at least, a community -- to tell you which ones are worth doing. Great communication is the key to innovation. 

Innovation is made up of four kinds of communication - four kinds of conversations. 

  1. Communication from you, the company, to your community members.
    You will need to have two kinds of conversations with your users:
    1. Ask for help and feedback -- either in general (“Give us your ideas!”) or in specific (“Help us with this project...”)
    2. Talk back to the people who give you ideas, to tell them status & final result of their idea.
      We do this ourselves on our IdeaExchange - the main page highlights videos and ideas that were generated by the community, by their release date; . 
  2. Community members talking to you - individually, and as a group. 
    A good community is often brutally honest; they feel safe sharing, and the more passionate they are about your product or service, the more open, honest, and frustrated they can be. If you’re able to be open and responsive in return - rather than defensive and closed - you’ll gain an enormous amount from even the most frustrated of conversations. 
  3. Conversation between users.
    Users will talk to each other about ideas. They’ll comment, they’ll vote, they’ll bring their friends in, they’ll link to examples on the web. It can be difficult as a community manager to let those conversations take place naturally - instead of jumping in with responses to each comment - but allowing people to use your community as a safe place to dialogue will ultimately be enormously valuable for you. 
  4. Internal - inside your company. 
    In some ways, this is the most important part; if your community is active and thriving, but you’re not able to act on the ideas brought in, it’s a dead end -- which ultimately will kill the community. In order to succeed with ideation, you need to be able to highlight ideas to the right people and organizations, drive consensus, act on them, and - ultimately - message back to your community.  

Q4: How do you use social data for development of products and services? 

Idea2All user data is ultimately social information. Any interaction you have with your customers should be a part of your overall service experience -- your community shouldn’t exist in a silo, any more than your service information should be isolated from Sales or Marketing. 

At Salesforce, whether you tweet in to tell us you love a product, post on the IdeaExchange, purchase new licenses, come to Dreamforce -- or all of the above -- it adds to our information about you as a customer, and helps us serve you better. That’s what we’re ultimately here to do, and all the information we have - whether about individuals or in aggregate - helps us do our job better.

Ideas is a part of that big picture; inside the company, we associate ideas with the customers they come from; when you talk to a service agent, they can see your open ideas in the same way they can see your open tickets; innovation is part of your social (person) profile with us. 

In the end, all that really matters is how you’re connecting with & listening to your community members - and how you're making sure they’ll come back again, and recommend your business to their friends. 

Asking for help with innovation is a great way to become that most-recommended and most successful company-- and communicating around innovation is, in and of itself, a great connection.