Benchmarking Innovation

Best practices for implementing an innovation program

by Peter Merrill

After I learned this issue of QP was focused on benchmarking, I decided to benchmark the benchmarking others have done to find correlations in best practices. It was a tough exercise. I have grouped my findings into five categories:

  1. Strategy.
  2. Education and competence.
  3. Culture.
  4. Structure.
  5. Process and metrics.


The most obvious finding is that innovation must be aligned with the strategic objectives of an organization, and they must be clearly explained to the people who must understand why innovation is important.

The innovation strategy must draw on clear strengths and competencies of an organization. I worked with an organization that built cockpit flight simulators for the aerospace sector. The sector was in a downturn at the time, and the CEO saw a new business opportunity in the nuclear industry. Making simulators for that industry used skills and technologies the organization already had in place. It showed that competitors can copy an idea, but it takes much longer for them to copy competencies.

While it’s exciting to come up with new ideas, it’s more difficult to kill projects after resources are invested. Your strategy must include criteria and a process for killing a project. A popular maxim for innovators is, "Fail early." Try to build this into your strategy and process.

Partnering is another critical aspect of strategy. You don’t know everything, and you can’t do everything. Ask yourself, "Where are my organization’s skill shortages, and how can I address them?" Look for partners who are short on your particular strengths. Seek areas in which you can achieve that elusive win-win, which will enable you to enter new markets quickly. There are many other aspects to strategy, but I have just picked those which emerged as significant in benchmarking.

Education and competence

Those in leadership are the first people who must fully understand innovation, and they must understand creativity and develop their own creativity. Being creative is increasingly in demand, and the war for talent is shifting from quantitative minds to creative ones.

Everyone in an organization—especially leaders—must understand that innovation starts in the marketplace with a business opportunity, not in the lab. People also must learn innovation is a process—not magic—and that it’s relatively easy to come up with ideas, and more difficult and expensive to execute them. That’s why innovators fail early.

When we seek new hires, we can fall into the "mirror trap" and recruit individuals who mirror ourselves. If your organization is mostly made up of linear thinkers, break that trend, increase diversity, and recruit and retain creative talent at undergraduate and graduate levels.

As you build your education plan, ensure it contains concrete examples from your own organization. People love real-life stories: Find innovation successes, however small, and show how they were achieved.

Innovation culture change

The question I’m most frequently asked is, "How do I create an innovation culture?" The question these people should be asking is, "How do I get a culture of creativity to coexist with a culture of execution?" because both are necessary.

The first task is to identify the barriers to change. Typically, the biggest barrier is the structure of the organization, not individuals. One group of people, however, is frequently overlooked. Organizations educate leaders who run town hall meetings for our people, but ignore middle managers and supervisors.

Front-line supervisors have the biggest influence on the majority of people’s behavior. You must recognize and compensate everyone. Do it continuously and not just at the end of a project. Remember that creative people often respond more to recognition than to rewards.

Organizations recognize behavior such as collaboration, a willingness to take risks, and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and be courageous. Others in the organization will then recognize that those behaviors are valued.

The best results do not come from a lone scientist. Teams must be given the opportunity to innovate, and they also can be rewarded by giving them the opportunity to work on a project they see as important.

It also is useful to see how many full-time employees are on a core innovation team. Most core teams, however, are quite small (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

A leader has a key role in changing a culture by closely engaging with individual teams and not just speaking promising words. If heartbreaks happen, a leader’s prime responsibility is to remind people that they have permission to fail and help them learn from the experience.


An innovative organization is a result of a peaceful coexistence of diverse, agile, open and networked creativity alongside highly focused delivery chains.

Diversity can be obtained internally and externally. Looking outside your four walls and innovating without borders is where you can find some of your best new ideas.

Partnering with customers, suppliers and even competitors can lead to open innovation, in which we find ideas from the outside.

Agility is gained by avoiding highly defined job descriptions. In the organization I led in the United Kingdom, we had key tasks, not job descriptions. I did this because we were experiencing such rapid change and growth. People should be able to move to different parts of the organization quickly and easily.

Networked organizations are an increasing reality as technology advances. Successful innovation comes not just from having the right structure but also the right infrastructure. As knowledge grows exponentially, dedicated websites or portals become essential tools.

Procter & Gamble Co. is a great champion of innovation. For many years, it has uncovered open innovation solutions through its partnership with InnoCentive—a crowdsourcing organization that works on R&D problems. For a larger organization with multiple projects underway, a shared portal is essential.

Creative people need a safe space. There are many methods of creating a safe space, and you have to find those that work best for you: whether it is Lockheed Martin’s "skunk works"—an alias for its advanced development programs—or the self-managed teams of
W. L. Gore & Associates Inc. and 3M.

Innovation process and metrics

It’s imperative that creative and implementation processes are integrated. For example, Walmart insists that the people responsible for implementation are in the same room as those developing solutions.

The overall process also must be understandable with just five or six basic steps. One that has 39 steps, for example, is likely to be forgotten.

A common mistake in defining the innovation process is merging the concepts of finding the opportunity and finding the solution into a one step. People involved in market research must work with those in product research while keeping their distinct roles.

The innovation process starts with finding the best opportunities and having clear criteria for their evaluation. A market opportunity might be defined during strategy development, but it is still the first step in the process. In suggestion schemes, people are expected to define the problem and solution. This will provide improvements, but it rarely creates breakthrough innovation.

The next step is finding solutions. The best methods for finding solutions or ideas tap into collective knowledge, and they also must align with the corporate capabilities and goals.

After developing ideas, it’s essential to use a review process in which innovative ideas with the most potential are given resources. The review also allows people to hear why their ideas did or didn’t make the cut.

Narrowing the focus of ideas is essential to avoid an idea avalanche that cannot be resourced. You must then implement ideas quickly, and failing to do this could lead to being overtaken by competitors and organizationwide disappointment. The leaders of the business unit must buy in, move with speed, and not become bogged down by processes and approvals.

There are many tools available to manage the innovation process (see Figure 2). To know whether your strategy and processes are working, you need metrics. The wrong metrics can kill innovation, but the right metrics will be easily understood by leaders. Figure 3 illustrates organizations’ typical metrics used during the execution phase.

Figure 2

In the creative phase, metrics will be atypical: They might include the number of ideas created, but you also will measure the strength of the relationships between people or degree to which an idea can be copied. In the execution phase, metrics typically are project focused, but ensure process metrics are included as well. You must know where your innovation process can be improved.


Buchan, John, The 39 Steps, Michael O’ Mara Books, 2011.

Burkus, David, "10 Practices From the Most Innovative Organizations," Creativitypost.com, April 23, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/innovative-orgs.

Canadian Innovation Center, "10 Best Practices for Enterprise Innovation," 2011, http://tinyurl.com/best-practices-ent-innovation.

Innosight, "Innovation Benchmarking Report 2015," report, Innovationleader.com, http://tinyurl.com/2015-innovation-report.

Jain, Vani, "Innovation Without Borders: Six Best Practices to Improve Innovation Success Rates,"
Innovationmanagement.se, June 17, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/innovation-borders.

Labovitz, George and Victor Rosansky, "Five Best Practices to Drive Innovation,"Innovationexcellence.com, Aug. 4, 2013.

Lash, Rick, "Best Practices for Leading Via Innovation," Harvard Business Review, Aug. 6, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/08/best-practices-for-leading-via.

Merrill, Peter, Innovation Never Stops, ASQ Quality Press, 2015.

Pennsylvania State University, "Benchmarking for Innovation and Improvement," Innovation Insights, http://tinyurl.com/pennstate-innovation-insights.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009) and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank.

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