How to Build Your Innovation Provider Ecosystem

Wondering how to build your innovation provider ecosystem? We explored that topic in our panel discussion last week  “How to Build Your Innovation Provider Ecosystem”, where Innovation and Design Thinking leaders shared what was working for them, and tips to help power success.

How Do You Decide on Your Ecosystem?

There are many innovation options available. Deciding which tools and vendors fit with your company’s goals and culture can make all the difference. Sharing guidelines to help you evaluate these options were panelists from Ralph Lauren, Symmons, and LPL Financial:

Ralph Lauren – Jason Berns, Senior Vice President of Product Innovation Global Operations

Symmons Industries – Beth Mercurio, Director of Strategic Initiatives

LPL Financial – Ieasha Taitano, VP of Innovation and Design Thinking

Where should you use vendors?

Ieasha shared three areas LPL Financial has found vendor assistance useful:

  • Scaling operations – examples: host a design session or consultant who augments our workload
  • Providing tools or training to our employees – examples: brainstorming or crowdsourcing software
  • Working on minimally viable prototypes

“External resources are critical to help shape the direction, but we eventually bring key expertise in-house,” shared Beth. Vendors understand this, knowing they are often brought in to teach what will eventually be expanded internally. For example, at Ralph Lauren, Jason has SME’s who are strong at managing external agencies, but goes internal when it comes time to execute.

But how does that look in action? It depends.

What Should Your Ecosystem Look Like?

“What your ecosystem looks and feels like depends on your maturity cycle,” shares Ieasha “so when you’re first starting, you may use SME vendors to help ramp and scale the knowledge internally. Once you’ve cycled through what your plan is and have tested it, then you’re comfortable relying on different types of vendors and tools to stretch the reach. And we use these external vendors to create minimum viable prototypes.”

Your consumer evolves and the vendor ecosystem does as well. Jason shared a mature model where he had eight different partners on one project, ranging from tiny one person boutique to large organizations. “Certain design firms will do a task (ex. storyboard) whereas some full service design agencies do not want small projects. So having a variety of relationships and knowing which experts and tools to use to do a particular job is key.”

And that requires knowing who to hire!

How to Know Who To Hire?

Ieasha selects vendors “based on the business audience and output needs. For example, vendors are reviewed by who should interact with executives, do ethnography, develop a prototype or develop new software.” Panelists agreed that it is important to keep a list of vendors who are the “go to’s” to work with or ask for advice. (Example: Beth and Ieasha specifically called out Altitude as a company they reach out to for advice on their innovation efforts.)

In fact, Symmons was using 10 specific criteria for vendor selection, but soon realized a more specific focus by innovation vendor (rather than rote questions) would bring the deeper skills needed and lead to the desired outcomes.

All panelists agreed that “fit” is key for trust and comfort when working with a vendor. Vendors that ask challenging questions help clients succeed – much more so than those who shy away from the tough issues. Jason added, “The relationship is so critical when working with broad-based agencies. They need to understand your organization.” And they can’t demonstrate true understanding if they aren’t questioning anything to test that knowledge. And it also makes it difficult to measure success.

How Is Success Measured?

It’s always challenging to set KPI’s for innovation. Unlike sales, where a number can be set, you need to look at deliverables, and the key milestones that get you closer to the end goal. You can also monitor if the project is on time, on budget, how the overall relationship is doing, and whether there is flexibility to change when variables and learnings change. In the end, Jason says, “It is really about ‘Are we getting ‘it’ done?” – whatever “it” is”.

Beth reminded us to check in to continually ask:

“Why are we doing this?”

“What’s the value to the consumer?”

As Jason cautioned, “You must have a very strong consumer value statement. And be willing to change (vendors) midstream, if you have to, if you’re not delivering on the value statement.” He added, “Ralph Lauren is a design-led company, so if we bring on a design firm, we still need to make sure the firm is willing to listen to us and grow with us.” Ieasha added, “A vendor should not have a ‘one talk track’.” She said that they need to be able to listen, iterate and focus on the consumer’s needs as well as the client’s.

Reminders for a Check-in on Vendor “Fit”

  • Welcome challenges. Challenges are often opportunities so embrace them.
  • Never lose sight of the consumer. Always understand the value you are bringing to the consumer. The consumer should be at the hub of all innovation.
  • If you use vendors, don’t expect that this skill will automatically come in-house. Engaging with a vendor is step 1 to internal training, guidance and adoption.
  • Innovation is really about change, so discomfort should be expected. This is a good thing because if you are not uncomfortable then you’re probably not being very innovative. Manage the internal and external teams with clear and continuous communication so you have a collaborative, synergistic, comfortable ecosystem that can pull together to work through the discomfort.
  • Beth shared, “Innovation happens over time. It is not one and done.” Vendors understand we look to them to bring something new to the table which is often a skill we do not have. We look at how we can transfer that knowledge and they understand this.

A lot comes down to partnering with the right innovation and design firm. Check out the complete panel discussion in our hangout “How to Build Your Innovation Provider Ecosystem” for more insights from these experts.

And for more assessment tools to guide your innovation efforts, we invite you to download our paper “Design to Win: Start by Choosing the Right Partner”.

Check back regularly for more tips!

Gretchen Hoffman

Posted By: 

Gretchen Hoffman

VP Marketing