How to Build a Digital Innovation Team

10.15.2019

Any manager knows team building is complex, but building a digital innovation team in established industries and organizations is especially challenging thanks to legacy constraints, situational circumstances, and complex aspirational goals. This is why so many corporates, and manufacturers especially, look at startups with a kind of longing – it’s a lot easier when you’re starting your entire organization from scratch to build a digital innovation team that coheres with corporate innovation goals, aligns with existing infrastructure, and is impactful. But, the only way to not be left behind by innovation is to commit yourself to innovation, and that may involve building a dedicated digital innovation team

What Do We Mean by Digital Innovation Team?

While there are many ways for a company to be innovative, one strong and established trend is the standalone team that is exclusively dedicated to innovation. Otherwise, innovation frequently gets swept under the rug of competing activities and deadlines that impact the bottom line now. Digital innovation teams, instead, are committed to building competitive advantages that will impact the bottom line later, when threats known and unknown might undermine the current status quo.

The working definition of a digital innovation team is, a “central innovation group whose mission is to design, build, operate, and evolve the enterprise-wide innovation system.” And, when we say “system,” we mean the organization’s “culture, structure, processes, people, and metrics, presumably all supported by a central corporate innovation strategy that underpins everything.” The first step to building a digital innovation team is, of course, to find your innovation strategy.

Find Your Innovation Strategy

It seems obvious, but bears repeating: innovation strategies need to be clearly defined before the hiring process takes place. It’s important that the innovation strategy come from the top, that the company’s executive team respects the threat raised by rapidly shifting industries and technologies and understands the potential of the digital innovation team to implement strategies and position the organization for future success. Not only must the executive team know and intimately understand the strategy, financial gain, and global impact, but they should give the executive tasked with building the team the full support and resources needed to move forward confidently. 

While innovation strategies will vary across industries and organizations, it should revolve around taking advantage of opportunities that the business wouldn’t ordinarily go after but are still within the future scope of the organization. The innovation strategy recognizes that there are valuable innovations that fall between the gaps of an existing business intent on meeting quarterly numbers. Especially in sales-driven manufacturing and distribution organizations, there should be huge and clearly identifiable opportunities for innovation teams. 

Obvious goals may be to improve sales or create more lifetime customer value. Recognizable strategies may be to find ways to create competitive advantages that make it worthwhile for customers to come to you and stay longer. This is what we did at Kloeckner with our two main digital products, Kloeckner Direct & Part Manager. Both were intensive projects that solved particular pain points for our customers–digital supply chain transparency and part reordering automation–that gave us a technical competitive advantage over our competitors. 

Choose Your Methodology

To build a digital innovation team, you’ll need a methodology that gives you a structured and clear view of the jobs the team will need to accomplish. That methodology can consist of three elements: the mission, the people that will get it done, and key performance indicators that demonstrate the right kind of progress.

Set the Mission

You have the strategy, now you need outlined projects with concrete timelines and actionable deliverables. Any staff that will be involved with the digital innovation team should be familiar with the top-level organization’s strategies and the long-term benefit to the development of its intellectual property. But, small disclaimer, don’t be surprised if the timelines and deliverables change once the entire team is in place and the processes and expectations merge as you have a chance to integrate their input. 

Identify the People

Innovation is all about people. When you’re hiring for innovation, it’s important that you hire for specific personality and traits. While seeking out innovation roles in resumes might seem like a safe bet, the truth is that you can be more flexible. Creative Directors, Product Engineers, Back- or Front-End Developers, and Strategists typically have the right mix of creativity, problem-solving, and initiative. 

It’s also important to have somebody on the team in a customer-facing role who can keep everyone firmly rooted and vet ideas for real impact. This might be a creative and forward-thinking Sales Manager. Finally, don’t forget passion. Even in industries that are less glamorous like, say, manufacturing, passion for the industry or the role will give you extra assurances that work will get done.

Establish Key Performance Indicators

Of course, projects need KPIs to ensure that the innovation strategy stays on course. Depending on your innovation strategy and the number of concepts proposed and tackled, inform the team from the get-go that its success will be measured based on a few metrics, and that they should monitor this data:

  • The cost in time and money of development for a given invention
  • Either the revenue generated after deployment of a given product
  • The rate of customer adoption of any of the concepts
  • Improvements in customer retention after introducing new concepts
  • The size, value, or success of the organization’s IP portfolio

If this seems overwhelming, don’t forget there are outside tools that can help organizations manage their IP portfolio. The important thing is to stay on top of these KPIs and use them as your department’s north star metric throughout projects.

It’s Not Easy

None of this is easy. The larger the organization, and the larger the legacy, the more difficult it is to be innovative. There simply isn’t another setting in organizations where it’s demanded to bring together a diverse set of people and give them responsibility for ensuring the company’s future growth. The team must navigate both ambiguity and uncertainty while learning quickly across a range of disciplines and development large internal networks to facilitate forward movement.

While getting the right people is critical, don’t forget about outside support. There are risks to hinging everything on an internal digital innovation team. You don’t want employees abandoning the mentality of continuous learning that got them hired and turning into know-it-alls. And, on a collective note, you have to be wary of tunnel vision. At Kloeckner, we did hire external candidates for our innovation projects. However, we did find that the majority of our innovation team was better served by internal candidates due to the uniqueness of the manufacturing industry.

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Melika Nouri
Melika Nouri is the Marketing & Communications Manager at Kloeckner Metals. Melika holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Marketing from Kennesaw State University. She previously worked in the technology industry at Hewlett Packard Enterprise as part of their global MarCom team but is very eager to take on steel!
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