Business

Lessons on innovation from the Intrapreneur Academy

idea concept with light bulbs on a blue background
idea concept with light bulbs on a blue background

Local organizations, large and small, have sent teams of employees to the yearlong Intrapreneur Academy at NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids to learn how to be more innovative. From Brucemore and the Linn County Auditor to Collins Aerospace, the diverse teams have been surprised and comforted to know that many of them struggle with similar issues even though their workplaces are vastly different.

“It kind of broke my mental model of the program when I saw how different the organizations would be, but what I’ve learned is that innovation is hard in the same areas for everyone,” said Mandy Webber, director of innovation at NewBoCo.

Some organizations sent teams of people who perform similar roles, whereas others sent cross-functional teams. Webber said that both types of teams can benefit as long as the participants come willing to learn. “We’re looking for the people who ask questions, not the people who just want to sit at their desk.”

Webber teaches four core competencies: agile, methods, strategy and culture. Team-based approaches to innovation are emphasized throughout the program. Webber says that organizations should test out new ideas as collaborative teams in order to reduce worry about who will get the blame if an idea fails. “If employees are fearful of trying new things because of their workplace culture, organizations will miss out on innovative ideas. Some products never see the light of day because people are waiting for internal perfection. That’s not innovation.”

After implementing a new idea, teams are taught to continuously talk about progress and make adjustments along the way so that problems can be fixed and customer feedback can be implemented more quickly. “If you find yourself pointing the blame at someone for something not working, that’s the person you should bring into the planning,” she said.

A team-based approach also can help create a balance between what Webber calls “idea monkeys” and “ringleaders” in an organization.

“Idea monkeys are the people who popcorn off ideas and aren’t always interested in following them through. Ringleaders are the people who take action on the ideas. The best balance exists when ringleaders can get idea monkeys to follow through on the right projects,” Webber said.

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Selecting the right work projects to implement can prove to be a challenge in itself, so Webber leads the groups through an activity called Innovation Games. For instance, the group will place ideas on an “impact/effort” graph to determine which ideas have the ideal balance between the amount of effort required to implement them and the impact they will have.

“Consider starting with a few high impact, low effort ideas before trying for the high effort, high impact ideas. Those small wins will help create momentum,” Webber said.

She notes that innovation is more than just brainstorming new ideas; it also involves smarter problem-solving. Webber believes that organizations can benefit from examining problems more closely before getting attached to solutions that they think will work.

“If you’ve decided you need to make an app, what problem is that app solving? Do the people that you’re solving the problem for even use apps?”

Intrapreneur Academy participants have started to bring some of these tactics back to their respective workplaces.

“This way of thinking helps us examine the fundamental problem, rather than just creating a surface-level solution,” said Leslie Wright, academy participant and senior vice president of community building at United Way of East Central Iowa. “The tools, the theory and the mind-set are starting to weave together.”

Participants openly discuss ideas and problems during the academy, which helps teams learn from the successes and mistakes of others within their organization, and from those in completely different fields.

“Everybody starts out thinking that what they are doing is a secret, but best-practice sharing is more beneficial than information hoarding,” Webber said.” “If we want to be more agile and adaptive, we need to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

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With so many different ways that individuals and organizations can work on becoming more innovative, Webber hopes that participants aren’t afraid to try new ways of working and problem-solving. “Being innovative is an everyday effort.”

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