Innovation Department Best Practices: A Talk with Peter Berger

Peter Berger is the Director of Innovation for EmbraerX, a Silicon Valley innovation unit of Brazilian aerospace company Embraer. As an innovation director, Berger is working on projects that include the development of an all-electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft to be used for short-distance air travel with the ease of hailing an Uber.

Imagine using an app to hail one of these instead of an Uber.

Berger recently sat down for an interview with IdeaScale’s Jessica Day for IdeaScale Nation, the company’s innovation podcast. Here’s what he had to say about what it takes to operate a successful innovation department.

Innovation Units Should Be Separate from Business Units

While innovation units may have things in common with traditional business units, they have some key differences too and should be separate. Expectations for business units should be different from expectations of innovation units, or companies risk overly constraining innovation.

Berger mentions that it’s not uncommon for established businesses to unintentionally have the effect of dissolving people’s sense of “agency,” of being able to make decisions quickly. By separating innovation departments from other, traditional business departments, it’s easier to provide innovators with the autonomy they need to conceive of great ideas and to bring them to market.

Ideation: “What’s Our Unfair Advantage?”

The ideation process will clearly be different depending on the type of parent organization. Ideation in the health and beauty industry will be different from ideation in the shipbuilding industry. Whatever the context, ideation is a “structured walk in the wilderness,” according to Berger. The structure is provided both by what the business cares about and by what it is good at. 

While it’s good – mandatory, even – to push boundaries and push them hard, it’s also important to avoid playing away from your strengths too much. EmbraerX’s concept of a short-commute VTOL, for example, definitely pushes boundaries, but it also plays to Embraer’s strengths. The company’s “unfair advantage” of having lots of experience in building aircraft gives structure to the ideation process.

Group of people sitting around a conference table discussing ideas.
Push the boundaries, but don’t forget where your competitive advantages are.

The Components of a Productive Innovation Department

Berger suggests three critical components for building an innovation department:

  • An outsider
  • An insider who is known as a bit of a maverick
  • A “snowplow” person whose job is to move obstacles out of the way so innovation can progress

He also says that in his experience, it’s good when innovation departments must push for funding. While they should not be starved of personnel and resources, neither should they be given fat budgets with no strings, because that can quickly lead to complacency, which is the enemy of innovation.

He also says that the process of innovation should be tempered by two seemingly opposed (but actually interdependent) actions:

  • Be bold, and push boundaries hard – even to the point of straining credulity
  • Be patient because innovation efforts may span years. In other words, the quarterly updates that work for traditional business units are far too short a timescale for big innovation projects.

Innovation departments are new territory for many businesses because more businesses realize that you can’t count on the one-off “great idea” to power innovation. However, innovation departments are the groups that will bring us game-changers like the city-to-city VTOL on which Peter Berger and his colleagues are working.

Running an innovation department requires systematic management of ideas, from their earliest forms through to fully fleshed-out ideas through prototyping and production. IdeaScale makes innovation management software that allows companies to do exactly this, so organizations can gather, assess, prioritize, and move forward with ideas that will change how people do business and live their lives. If you’d like to learn more, we invite you to download our Crowdsourcing to Innovate Products white paper.

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