The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – so said the renowned Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. When considering innovation, many managers overlook this because they are daunted by the onerous challenges they have been led to believe are associated with setting up an innovation process, writes Chartered Engineer Liam Fennelly.

We’ve all heard the excuses: innovation is for those guys with the ponytails and bean bags, and anyway we don’t have free staff; we’re too busy and don’t have the time; we haven’t got the big budget required; six sigma will take care of everything; what if I fail?

Risk being overtaken

Have you ever noticed some of your competitors win more often and wondered how they are doing it? The reality is that if companies don’t innovate and only focus on the short term, then they risk being overtaken by the competition and ultimately running into serious business and financial difficulties.

Getting started on the innovation journey doesn’t require a huge commitment of staff and resources. And, it is not necessary to recruit specifically to set up and operate an innovation process.

It can be done simply with a small in-house team engaging with a mobile app just a couple of hours over a week per topic. It doesn’t require long training programmes and endless brainstorming sessions. Sessions such as these are a good starting point, however they alone rarely produce transformational ideas.

There are higher yield methods of capturing ideas (see below). As far as budgeting goes, having a small team spending less than two hours per week on ideation isn’t going to break the bank.

And when it comes to implementation, most good ideas will be easy pickings: impactful and easy roll-out projects that can be done within the operating budget. When seriously good ideas (transformational and disruptive) emerge that require a capital budget – you’ll find it!

The top 10 activities from which great ideas emerge

  • Walking (with/without the dog)
  • Jogging (without earbuds!)
  • In the shower
  • While drifting off to sleep
  • At the gym
  • While relaxing
  • Watching TV
  • On holiday
  • Gardening
  • Gazing out the window

The common denominator among all these is the fact that they are all outside the work environment (with the possible exception of No 4!). As counterintuitive as it appears, taking a break can sometimes be the most productive thing you can do.

How do we capture those ideas generated in such a wide variety of situations before they are lost?

The one thing that everybody has within reach 24/7 nowadays is their phone. Using a simple app, ideas can be entered and saved centrally with sender and time stamps.

Even greater efficiency can be achieved when ideas are focused on a particular business problem or opportunity. This can be initiated by sending the team a challenge, coupled with a relevant list of trigger questions.

The trigger questions prompt the participant to think of things from different perspectives and helps expand their creativity. For example: What new technologies are there that may improve our product/service quality? Or, what would have to happen in order to double production in line 1?

The process can become ‘systematic’ by scheduling and issuing a new challenge every week, month or quarter to suit. You can deepen the innovation programme and build an internal innovation culture by gradually rotating other staff into the team as time progresses.

The systematic innovation process

Being systematic simply means identifying relevant business topics (across all aspects of your business) for challenges and issuing them to the team at planned intervals over a year.

We use our proprietary Innovation Source Map to help select business topics to focus innovation challenges. It generates a wide variety of pointed trigger questions across 28 business topics. The process is repeated annually and as technology and environments change, new ideas will emerge each year.

  • Focused ideation: by focusing on key areas over short periods (one to two weeks) and using trigger questions, we can maximise the quality of ideation. The team can input ideas as they occur to them from anywhere, anytime 24/7. Regular feedback (via word cloud) helps stimulate focus and creativity.
  • Capture and ranking: a simple app captures ideas by time and sender. At the end of the challenge the team rank the ideas on an impact versus ease of roll-out basis. The ranking exercise can be completed within a couple of hours (also by mobile).
  • Implementation: typically, the bottom 50% of suggestions can be eliminated. Of the next 50%, most will be easy pickings requiring little cost or disruption to roll-out. A small percentage over the year will be major projects that require further validation, analysis and a detailed business plan. The validation and implementation can be completed in-house with some assistance, contracted out or done collaboratively with a startup or third-level institution.

Six simple steps to get started

  1. Select your team leader and a diverse team of five and hold one short on-boarding session to explain the process and activities.
  2. Management agree aligned business topics of relevance and interest.
  3. Set up a WhatsApp group for the team.
  4. On WhatsApp, post the link to the challenge to trigger and collect focused and relevant ideas.
  5. Give daily feedback to the team (via word cloud).
  6. Sort and rank ideas at the end of each week and decide which make the cut and move to the validation and implementation stage (larger projects with promise).

You simply repeat steps four, five and six of the process for each new area of business challenge.

As you become more comfortable with the process, you can scale up to any size you like. You don’t need to boil the ocean in week one, you just need to get started!!

Author: Liam Fennelly is a Chartered Engineer and MBA graduate of Warwick Business School. He has more than 30 years’ experience working for multinationals and several startups. He is a former three-term president of the MBA Association of Ireland. He is co-author of the widely acclaimed manual for startups: Countdown To Launch. He can be contacted at