Like any change worth making, creating a successful innovation program — one that’s both manageable and repeatable, and that proves its effectiveness regularly — starts with one small step. And when the consequence of change is a total shift in company culture and approach, that small step is usually shaped like a traditional project, complete with leaders and doers, timelines and budgets, and measurable metrics.

This month, we’re going to discuss and exemplify why breaking down innovation efforts into smaller, cross-departmental projects can be the key to finally making your initiatives profitable, quantifiable, and capable of eclipsing your expectations.

Step One: Research is Everything

This is not news — “doing your homework” is the crux of being successful with basically anything, and goes hand-in-hand with building well-thought-out strategies and business blueprints. Rather than making a futile attempt to frame innovation from the top-down When you start to think about taking a holistic, hands-on approach to innovation, you’re going to have to dig around in the negative, and place focused efforts on exposing issues, tracking both their beginnings and their reach, and making hard-line decisions about how quickly they can be eradicated (and, at what cost).

To avoid any kind of sugarcoating: this process is not an easy one, and can be as simple as reallocating budgets, or as painful as realizing that not everyone in the organization is a necessity. You’ll likely discover that things have slipped; you’ll unearth hidden excesses and struggles. Remember how much you used to whine about solving word problems and memorizing historical trivia? This is the kind of real-life stuff they were preparing you for.

Diagramming Your Business

What does innovation mean for your executives? What does it mean for your bottom line? How about your communications budget, marketing team, sales leads, and customer service technicians? Your Art Director? Your customers?

The fact is, there is no single, all-encompassing definition of what innovation means across the scope of an entire business. And as a result, there’s also no umbrella approach to capitalizing on it. In the exact same way that a projected profit dictates where money and talent are spent, so must your innovation goals individually influence the way operations are run and decisions are made. No small undertaking, this, but for most organizations this isn’t about starting over from scratch — it’s about identifying and understanding what has so far worked and what hasn’t, pinpointing why, and changing tactics based on what you find.

Taking a Hint from Project Management

Project managers have a pretty solid, go-to set of rules. The newly-forming army of innovation managers (i.e., everyone) will find that applying them to idea-focused projects not only makes sense, but alleviates a lot of the pressure that usually accompanies change and new ventures. For example:

Avoid the red tape. Bureaucracies have long been the culprits behind projects getting held up, and the same is true of managing innovation. While there’s no getting rid of all spreadsheets and lists, stick to what’s truly useful. Yes to connecting goals to costs, no to a complicated, hierarchal sign-off process.
Don’t micromanage. The best innovation programs require leaders, not nitpickers. Besides, it completely goes against the nature of innovation to force your best thinkers into predetermined or restrictive processes.
Always be willing to learn. Open-mindedness is critical to allowing innovation to flourish. That has to come from the inside out; the same goes for transparent communication.

Bottom line: you need an innovation management program, and helping it to take root and take off means a lot of different things. From embracing disruption to understanding what, exactly, you’re trying to accomplish, starting small — and allowing your practices to spread evangelically through your business — is the key to launching and maintaining your competitive advantage.