Companies can reduce the risk of adopting new innovation methods by testing them first. A short, pilot program that addresses a specific product or service line helps you understand whether a new method is right for your company. Pilot programs help keep your costs in line, and they help you reduce resistance to adopting new methods.

To organize an innovation pilot program:

1. Make the Case: A pilot program will take time and money, so you will need to build the business case before you can secure funding. Positioning is critical. The key is to show what has changed in the market creating a need to do things differently. Show the contrast how the firm’s future state would be improved if a new method is found. Offer up the pilot as a way to experiment without making huge commitments. Be sure not to attack the prevailing methods or departments responsible for innovation. Otherwise, they will push back.

2. Build the Base: Enroll other divisions to share the risks…and rewards…from the pilot. Ask peers to chip in part of the expense, even if it is a small amount. By “syndicating” support of the pilot program, you broaden the exposure to the outcome. If you try to go it alone and do the pilot without your peers, you may be seen as the “lone wolf.” If the pilot flops, you are exposed. If it is wildly successful, the others who were not involved may feel resentful.

3. Select a Method: Do your homework to understand how the method works. Make sure you can explain it to others. Study the data and know its efficacy. Has it worked in the past and will it work on this project? How is the method different from what is being done today?

4. Choose the Consultant: Once you have selected an innovation method to test, choose the right consultant to deliver it. Be sure not to do it the other way around! Innovation consultants fall into four broad categories:

  • INVENTION: These are consultants that help you create new-to-the-world ideas. They have a particular expertise in creativity methods or idea generation tools. Their main focus is generation of many new product or service ideas.
  • DESIGN: These are consultants that take an existing product, service, or idea and put some new, innovative form to it. They have a particular expertise in industrial design or human factors design. Their main focus is transforming the way a product is used or experienced.
  • ENGINEERING: These are consultants that help you make the new idea work in practice. They have a particular expertise in technology, science, research, and problem solving. Their main focus is building it.
  • ACTUALIZATION: These are consultants that help you get the innovation into the marketplace. They have a particular expertise in marketing processes, brand, or commercial launch of a product or service. Their main focus is selling it.

The challenge is many consultants claim to be all of these. How do you know what type the firm really is? Study the biography of their founder. What was the founder’s education, experience, work background, interests, etc. The founder is where the core orientation of the firm begins. Select the consultant that is best suited to deliver the method and is well matched to the business case.

5. Recruit the Team: Bring together a “dream team” of talent to participate in the exercise. The ideal number of participants is twelve. They should be from diverse, cross-functional areas of the company. Strive for one third commercial, one third technical, and one third customer-oriented (sales, packaging, customer service). Gender diversity is essential – an equal number of men and women is the ideal. Be sure participants all commit to full participation. Avoid those who want to selectively “surf” into the pilot off and on. These are your eventual naysayers who will claim they experienced the method and “didn’t find it very useful.” Chances are they beholden to another method – their sacred cow.

6. Measure and Share: Develop a factual and credible story of what happened in the pilot. Don’t focus too much on downstream output, though. These measures are often subjective and unsupportable. Instead, focus on the only measure that counts – would the team leader from the pilot program recommend using the method to his or her colleagues? Advice from one’s peers will ultimately move other teams to act.

7. Make it Stick. Can we continue to use the method without the consultant going forward? Are the methods clear? Are there training aids and tools to help teach others? Can the pilot program be extended to a general training program? What is the retention rate one month out? Six months out? How many people could be trained within your current budget cycle? How do you continue to build innovation muscle?