By Alex Goryachev, the Managing Director of Cisco Innovation Centers
There’s no way to sugar coat it: innovation cannot be confined within the four walls of your organization. To survive in the digital era, you must tap into as many resources as possible from inside and outside your company.
The value of employee-driven innovation cannot be overstated, but sourcing and developing innovative ideas must be augmented by a strong external ecosystem to thrive in today’s interdependent world. You must build relationships and collaborate with external partners – from customers, vendors and government agencies, to local startups and accelerators, to academia and researchers, to customers and beyond – to deliver disruptive solutions.
Strong, clear, and consistent communications must be your top priority when deepening relationships to co-innovate with your partners, especially when working with players around the globe. But, business leaders have some work to do. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), 56 percent of revenue spent on a single project is put at risk by ineffective communications. Even if you think you’re communicating effectively with your partners, there’s always room for improvement – especially when the survival of your business is on the line.
No matter where you are with your partner ecosystems on your innovation journey, it’s time to refine your communication skills and tactics. Here are five common communications mistakes you’re probably making, and how to avoid them.
#1: Your Messages Are Not Clear and Consistent
It’s not only a matter of what you’re communicating, but also how you say it. Consistency and clarity are key (especially when working with partners from different regions around the world) to ensure that your core company values and innovation initiatives are not lost in translation. Messages you communicate to partners, vendors, customers, professional associations and any other third parties must reflect your business objectives, brand story and corporate image, along with your clearly defined goals for co-innovation.
To stay “on brand,” I strongly recommend that marketing and communications departments engage with innovation teams to create and share a single messaging document. This should include your company’s messaging surrounding innovation (how you speak about your initiatives and goals), with tangible proof points on previous successes.
Revisit this document annually to ensure it is consistent with your evolving innovation programs. Words can mean different things in different languages, so also vet your content with someone who speaks your partner’s primary language
#2 You Don’t Customize
The more you can customize your communications for your partner audience, the more impactful your messages will be. Each of your ecosystem partners plays a different role in your business’ innovation program and should be approached differently.
Rather than adopting a general, blanket approach to communicating with partners, such as a templated email “blast,” tailor communications to their area of expertise and make your messages personal. By showing that you’ve taken the effort to recognize their strengths and passions, partners will be more comfortable bringing their ideas to the table.
#3 You’re Afraid to Think Outside the Box
As Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” Just as creativity should fuel your innovations, it should also give your communications a much-needed spark. Remember, communication doesn’t have to be restricted to lengthy conference calls or weekly email.
Instead, host a lunch with your customers at your innovation center to discuss upcoming projects, for example. Start a conversation on social media channels or put on an interactive webinar to gather first-hand input from customers and vendors to better understand their challenges and determine how you can be part of the solution. Your creative communications methods will translate not only into innovative ideas, but also build credibility and strengthen trust with your ecosystem.
#4 You Don’t Listen
Communications must be a two-way street, especially in co-innovation, where trust and respect among partners is essential. While you listen and learn from your ecosystem, you must be transparent and candid about what’s working and what’s not, allowing your teams to quickly pivot and shift priorities.
This doesn’t just mean nodding your head in agreement during a meeting – show your stakeholders that you are listening and act on what you hear. For example, source their feedback directly through a survey or simple online poll after implementing a proof-of-concept. You may discover a new perspective that would have gone unnoticed had you not asked. Also, if there’s an action item or lingering issue discussed, jot a note to yourself to follow up and, like the slogan says, just do it.
#5 You Operate in Silos
As mentioned, your employees are the most valuable resource in your innovation ecosystem because they are often the closest to your customers’ business challenges. One of the biggest mistakes I see organizations make is operating in departmental silos – innovation requires diverse, cross-functional collaboration because ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. The most valuable innovations emerge from team members with different perspectives.
A Harvard Business Review study found that active participation from employees of all backgrounds, positions, and seniority levels creates the most productive innovation programs. With cross-functional, diverse teams, communications will become much clearer and well-received – and, the more your own employees understand about your innovation programs, the better they, too, can communicate with your external partners.
Solicit feedback and encourage team-building and idea-sharing companywide through all modes of communications, including executive statements at “All Hands,” articles, videos, surveys, focus groups, social media or brainstorm sessions. Offer workshops and courses in different fields and foster an open environment where employees feel empowered to bring their ideas to life. And, as you break down internal silos, don’t forget to embrace diversity and inclusion.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of new ideas or become hyper-focused on one project, don’t underestimate the importance of effective communications to successfully move co-innovation forward. By communicating clearly, consistently and creatively with partners (and your own employees), as well as listening and breaking down silos, you’ll more readily spark innovation that has a lasting and positive impact on not only your business, but your entire ecosystem.