Activation: A Case Study in Innovation

I first met the CEO, “Rick” two years ago. After years at the helm of a consumer products organization, Rick was watching the company’s growth slow, and attributing this largely to his inability to infuse innovation into the DNA of the business.

In talking to Rick, I learned that “Innovation” had received much airtime in his town halls and presentations in recent years – the company had launched Innovation Labs and Funds… but nothing was working. He was out of ideas. Did they need a training? A committee? Incentives?

He needed to #Activate Innovation. Enter, well, us.

We launched our Activation Program – focusing not yet on solutions (i.e., trainings rewards) but rather on root causes, obstacles, and opportunities.

Through targeted interviews and focus groups harnessing all levels of the organization, employees were invited and encouraged to give us the insight – uncensored, unsanitized, and as “unstrategic” as necessary to point us toward the relevant solutions.

This was # SuperCandor in action.

And through these conversations, a set of essential – critical questions emerged. These were the questions at the root of the organizational allergy to innovation. And they were:

  • What does “Innovation” mean in a sales organization that isn’t developing apps or building technology?
  • Is innovation actually a part of my job? I’m “just” a [customer service representative / inventory specialist / financial analyst, etc.
  • When am I supposed to *do* innovation, when my calendar is packed with the responsibilities of my “day job?”

  • What these questions told Rick was, unsurprisingly, neither training nor a reward system would solve the problem.

    They pointed instead to the ideas – the # microchanges , that would cumulatively form this organization’s Activation Plan – designed by and for the employees who would drive its success.

    The plan included actions across the three priorities deemed essential by employees, which included:


    What is innovation in the context of a sales organization? How do we ignite it when we don’t make or build anything?

    As senior leaders gave this thought, and airtime, they ultimately offered teams a contextualized definition of innovation. And this allowed teams to begin thinking differently, creatively, about:

  • The sales processes used to engage customers
  • The forums and channels in which customer feedback is analyzed
  • The tools used for forecasting and planning
  • The templates designed to simplify repeatable actions
  • A small shift in thinking led to big wins over time.


    With a refreshed sense of what innovation meant, teams now wanted to see it in action.

    So leaders began highlighting, and publicly recognizing, small acts of innovation. When a service representative wanted to approach a sales call differently, or a financial analyst wanted to tweak a report to enhance the insight it provided, leaders said yes, making the change known to the organization.

    This approach both spotlighted examples of innovation in action, while also positively reinforcing – through recognition – the innovators. It was a win-win.


    And finally, a refrain familiar to myriad organizations - we just don’t have the time to be thoughtful or creative. We are struggling to keep up.

    This is a reality so pervasive these days. But as we tell our clients, just because it’s the new “normal” doesn’t mean it’s OK.

    Leaders, when you or your teams are truly so busy that you can’t find an hour a week in which to create whitespace, then you have a problem on your hands.

    The solution? Start small – like this organization did.

    Rick declared a White Space Week. And during this week, every employee of the company was challenged to find a single meeting during the course of that week to opt out of, in turn allocating that slot of time to one of the following activities:

  • Brainstorming – alone or with a peer – on a single idea
  • Having coffee with a colleague in another department
  • Reading an article, watching a video, or listening to a podcast on a topic of interest
  • Related: Time to Move the Needle With Three Simple Steps Into the New Year

    At the end of the week, Rick gently pointed out that the company managed not to sink in the face of all these meeting declines.

    Was this a bit of a stunt? It was.

    Did all employees forever decline all unnecessary meeting requests? They did not.

    Did this solve the innovation problem? It did not.

    BUT… White Space Week modeled a behavior – and it started from the top. The Activation Plan contained other strategies as well, including experimentation with delegation, collaborative prioritization, and more.

    And in the two years since this work kicked off – while there are still strides to be made – customer engagement has ticked up, while new ideas big and small have begun to emerge. From all levels of the organization.