We’ve written a few posts criticising some of the more common innovation metrics in use, so I thought it would be smart to outline some ways that we can actually develop more effective metrics. Here’s a story that might help:
A while ago I was in charge of managing student recruitment for a tertiary education institution. One of the first things I looked into when I started the job was metrics – how did we measure how well my section was doing? The answer was one number: total number of enrolled students each year. The job that I was given was to increase that number by as much as possible (which begs all kinds of questions about quality, teaching and so on, but let’s set those aside for now…).
The problem was that managing that number as a standalone was hard. Well, impossible, actually. So I looked into what other numbers we had, and I found a that we had measures for total applications received, and total enrolments. I worked with my teams to figure out the path that people took to become students, and we then also figured out a way to measure enquiries. Once we had these numbers, here’s what we did:
We made three metrics: total number of enquiries, the ratio of applications/enquiries, and the ratio of enrolments/applications. Then I made the marketing team responsible for enquiries, the information team responsible for applications/enquiries, and the enrolments team responsible for enrolments/applications.
When my boss told me to increase enrolments as much as possible, he was hoping for a 5% increase. By breaking down the process, developing new metrics, and making people accountable for the measures, we were able to increase enrolments by 12%.
There are several lessons from improving innovation metrics in this:
- Innovation is a process not an event: many things that we often think of as an event are actually processes. Enrolments is a good example – previously my institution only considered the end point, enrolled students. By breaking down the process that we went through to actually get an enrolled student, we were able to improve our ability to get enrolled students.
I think of innovation as a process too – this is the diagram that I use to describe it:
To improve our innovation metrics, we need to first think of it as a process, then build metrics to measure the intermediate steps as well as the outcomes.
- Use multiple metrics: in the enrolments story, we used three metrics that led to the one that we were most interested in (total enrolments). We can do the same for innovation. Once we think of it as a process, then we need to develop metrics for each of the steps that lead to the outcomes that we are looking for from innovation. Innovation is a complex process, and to manage it we need to use multiple metrics.
- Link Your Innovation Metrics to Your Strategy: my tertiary education institution saw increasing enrolments as a central part of its strategy. At the time, the educational sector in New Zealand was fairly turbulent, and there was a strong message from government that it wanted to see the sector consolidated. Increasing enrolments was seen as a way to signal that we were a thriving institution, making it less likely that we’d get absorbed by a larger polytechnic.
We need to do the same thing with innovation – link it to our overall strategy so that it can help drive success. There are a number of broader strategic goals that can be supported by innovation – we just need to be clear about which ones we’re targeting.
- Improve the part of the process that is weakest: when we started tracking the enrolments process, we discovered that we were pretty good at generating enquiries, and very good at converting applications into enrolments. The weak link was converting enquiries into applications.
The information team had been given some sales training before I arrived, which they strongly resisted. They saw their role as helping people, not selling them. We implemented a lot of ideas, but the one that had the greatest impact was getting them to ask at the end of each enquiry that they handled “if you’re interested in the course, would you like to put in an application?”
When they started doing that, the applications/enquiries ratio shot up from about 12% to 18% in a couple of weeks. And we weren’t forcing people to apply for courses they didn’t really want to take – the enrolments/application ratio held steady. If the quality of applications had decreased, this metric would have gone down. It turned out that a lot of people really did want to start studying, but they just needed a small nudge to get started.
In looking at our innovation processes, we need to do the same thing: find the weak link, and figure out how to best improve it. As we’ve said many times before, usually the problem in organisations is not that they don’t have enough ideas, but rather that they need to get better at selecting ideas, or at getting them to spread. In any case, once we have identified the part of the process that is most in need of improvement, then we can figure out to best go about making it better.
Getting innovation metrics right is a challenging task. There is no single number that will tell us everything we need to know to manage innovation. I hope these ideas help you figure out how to measure it better in your organisation.