How to Run an Innovation Pilot Program

Feb. 19, 2014
Pilot programs are an effective, low-cost way to test new ideas and move the product development process forward.

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: To start a pilot program, you’ll need resources - a budget - so you’ll need to build the business case before you can secure funding. The best way to gain support is to show your managers what has changed in the marketplace. That change could be something your competition has done. It could be a new consumer trend, or perhaps a change in industry regulations. Perhaps something changed in your company like a big downturn in sales or a product recall. The key is to show how a new innovation program might address that challenge. 

2. Build the Base: Next, you need to build a base of support for the pilot by getting colleagues in other departments involved. Why? Because you want to share the risks and the rewards from the pilot program. Make them aware of the pilot and invite them to participate. Ask your peers to chip in part of the expense even if it's just a small amount. By sharing the expenses of a pilot program, everyone takes a little of the credit for the outcome.

3. Select a Method: When setting up a pilot program, you need to decide what methods you’ll test and how you’ll measure success. Be sure everyone is clear what is being tested and measured. Is it the quantity of ideas generated? Quality of ideas?

Make sure you can describe the method that you’re testing. Has it worked in the past? Why do you think it will work on this project? How is the method different from what is being done today? In other words, you need to have your elevator speech ready.

4. Recruit the Team: Bring together a “dream team” of talent to participate in the exercise. The ideal number of participants is 12. 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. 

5. Measure and Share: During and after the pilot program, it's important that you develop a factual report of what happened. Make sure you include detailed descriptions of any new products and services. A great way to do this is to include visual drawings or physical prototypes that were generated during the pilot program. Colleagues who were not involved in the pilot will want to see what came out of it. It makes a bigger impact when they can actually visualize or handle the ideas.

6. Make it Stick. The bottom line is you’re going to be asked whether the pilot program worked. Were the methods found to be effective? Based on the outcome of the pilot, would you recommend this method to your peers? 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?

Your company expects you to deliver results, and that includes generating new products and services. Pilot programs are an effective, low-cost way to test new ideas and gain insights about techniques and methods. Pilot programs sell. They help sell you as an effective contributor to the growth of the organization, and they help sell your ideas. Most importantly, they help shed light on ways to unlock new value for your customers.

Drew Boyd is executive director of the Master of Science in Marketing Program and assistant professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. A 30-year industry veteran, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media. Contact him at: [email protected].

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