How many times have you been challenged to submit or present your innovation agenda and experienced an  awful sinking feeling?  You know you should have been working to keep it up to date but the day job got in the way. 

If this sounds familiar then fear not, you are not alone!  As well as managing the day to day issues in your business it can be really difficult to be creative and see the big ideas that may lead to future revenue and competitive advantage for your business.  Let’s face it, most food technologists are brilliant at reacting and resolving issues that arise, but truly finding the issues to solve requires a whole different skill set.

This post has been written for anyone who has been challenged to present their innovation agenda – and whilst it has been created as a guide for food technologists, the principles are the same regardless of your field of expertise.

Step 1 – Start with questions

What problems will innovation help solve? Think about the key questions that you are routinely challenged to solve in your business.  These may be about how to drive sales or how to continuously delight your customers. 

Try to link the challenge to a key business measure – if you can link it to sales, profitability or complaints then you will start to create a business case as to why you are spending your time working in this area.

Step 2 – Define the barriers

Try to find you’ve outlined

If the challenge is around driving sales, for example, what are the barriers to sales growth? It may be availability, as the customer can’t buy the product if it isn’t on the shelf!  What prevents the product getting to the shelf – for fresh produce companies this may be driven by poor weather delaying harvest which may cause gaps in supply. 

The barriers may be short term or long term – using the same example of fresh produce, a long term barrier to availability may be climate change which has caused the poor weather.

What’s getting in the way of a solution to your challenge?  Create a list of the key barriers you need to overcome.

Step 3 – Brainstorm

Start to write your innovation agenda – review the list of barriers that you have created; group them into similar themes and see if any other ideas spring to mind.

Everyone works differently, but this is the time I choose to share my ideas and brainstorm them further.  Brainstorming at this stage can be much easier than starting with a blank sheet of paper because you have some structure and a grasp of the thinking required for the solution that you are trying to find.  As well as coming up with additional ideas to work through, this also provides an opportunity to engage your broader team in the thought process.

Step 4 – Research

Once you have the list of areas to work on start to think about what research already exists to help you solve the problem. 

Continuing the fresh produce example this might be varietal development – different breeding houses focus on different areas or products.  Contact them and maintain this network of contacts.  Link their ideas to your problems and see if there are opportunities to create first to market concepts or whether there might be opportunities for exclusivity agreements.

Step 5 – Find the right people and resources

If the research does not already exist think about where to find the help that you need. 

This might be from thinking laterally – maybe locally, nationally or globally; within the area, sector, industry or outside it.  Where have others worked on similar issues? Talk to people to find out if they can point you in the right direction.

Step 6 – Set realistic priorities

Once you have your innovation list and the people who you can work with to solve the problem then start to prioritise and allocate responsibilities and timescales for progress review. 

The most important thing at this stage with priorities is to be realistic – it would be better to focus on three projects which will deliver results rather than try to spread yourself too thinly across six.  Equally although you need to be realistic about timescales for delivery, get into the habit of reviewing progress at least every quarter. 

Make sure that you create a rhythm around the agenda.  Get dates in the diary invite people to attend and then you are less likely to cancel them!

Step 7 – Keep the agenda alive

Add projects and ideas to it. Make sure that it is an agenda point on every team meeting. Keep the team engaged in the process and reward progress and achievements. 

By following these seven steps you will be able to not only create and maintain an active innovation agenda but each project will clearly link back to solving a business need.

From this you can work out the size of the prize and thereby gain support and buy in from the business to pursue your ideas. Make it happen and innovation will deliver its ultimate goal – competitive advantage for your business.