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9 Questions to Spark Innovation

Mindset, skill set, culture, funding and more are vital to the success of innovation endeavors. Are you or your organization asking the right questions to spark innovation? 

We tapped Helene Cahen, founder of Strategic Insights to outline 9 questions to help you. Find out about unblockers, pirates and zombie projects below – insights collected from her discussions and experiences with clients and perspectives gleaned from speakers at other innovation conferences.

At Harvest Summit this fall Helene will be one of the experts offering her consulting time during our Innovation Office Hours. More about her background and expertise below.

These questions are intended to spark your thinking – are any of these questions being asked in your organization now? Which one is worth reviewing with your team, your management or your clients right now?

While it would be great to have a simple answer to these universal questions, they serve as fundamental guide posts on your innovation journey. 

  1. Who should be involved in innovation? While some organizations believe that innovation is everybody’s job, others think that it is best to have small dedicated teams with special skills, training and behaviors and are protected from the dominant culture of the organization. Others recognize that they need to partner with start-ups or incubators to bring the risk and novelty that may not come from inside the organization.
  2. What are the purpose and the role of innovation in your organization? While this may appear as an easy question, too often the purpose of innovation is not clearly defined and drives many of the ambiguities, structure and funding issues related to innovation. Ultimately for CEOs, innovation is about making money, but clarity on the purpose is still critical.  They understand that some of the projects may only pay out in the long run and some will lose money or fail. It is important to define the type of innovation you are focusing on (core, adjacent or transformational) because the approaches, criteria for funding mechanisms and level of risks are different. While transformational innovation is likely to bring significant revenue in the long term it is also the most risky and hardest to evaluate.
  3. What are the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and metrics to measure success? There is a wide acknowledgment that to be successful, an organization needs to measure success around innovation but the challenge is selecting meaningful KPIs. While they are different for each organization, traditional indicators measuring the “input” (such as number of employees trained) are not enough. It is more important to measure the outcome for instance looking at change of behavior in employees (i.e. who is able to suggest an idea, or how much time is dedicated to experiments…) or speed to market.
  4. How good is your organization at embracing early experimentation and testing? It is important to adopt a fast prototyping, fail fast mentality if one wants to be successful with innovation projects. In an organization like Tower Willis Watson (a large consulting firm), this is best done with a small team that can adopt a start-up mentality while still benefiting from being part of a large organization. Barry O’Reilly from Exec camp describes this type of environment as “small batches and test culture”. Brant Cooper from Moves the Needle emphasizes the concept of “meritocracy of ideas”, having the best ideas wins (through experimentation) rather than arguing which one is best.
  5. What is the best approach to funding innovation projects? It’s important to have a clear protocol for financing innovation projects. Barry O’Reilly (ExecCamp) recommends the “zombie approach” when projects are regularly reviewed and compared and some projects are “killed” to provide more funding for projects that are showing stronger potential (rather than keep funding many projects for a long time), therefore maximizing the odds of success.
  6. How to scale innovation? Jonathan Bertfield of Spinnaker explains that it is only when all elements of thinking, doing and being innovative are aligned for each key dimensions that scalability can happen, otherwise innovation will be limited by the weakest element (see model at
  7. How to create a start-up mentality in a large organization? Janice Frazier shares that none of the innovative approaches (i.e. accelerators, center of excellence, 20% time…) deliver hyper-growth because, no matter which approach is used, the ways the process is managed with a lot of planning, gate keepers and funding mechanisms, make it impossible to succeed. Only with a new protocol and by applying the lessons of venture entrepreneurship can projects succeed: what is needed is a dedicated team, a funding based on a clear process, “Unblockers” (including the CEO), who are willing to take risks, the right people that have a “pirates” mentality and the ability to kill zombie projects (projects that are not relevant anymore but keep taking funding away from new opportunities). Karen O’Leonard from Willis Tower Watson explains how having a very small team and limited funding requires her to collaborate and convince others early on in their projects, the same way a start-up would have to convince early investors, therefore ensuring internal buy-in.
  8. Is Innovation more about ideas or problems? In his review of successful innovators, Greg Satell of Mapping Innovation emphasizes that the only common elements successful innovators have in common is “a systematic and disciplined process to identify new problems”.  He went on to explain that innovation is not about ideas but about the funding and resources around meaningful problems. As an example, Google gives free time to employees to work on problems with the idea that if many employees work on the same issue, it is likely that the problem is significant
  9. Which process is best to help with innovation? From all the discussions and presentations, Design Thinking and Lean (and to a lesser extent Agile) appear to be the processes mostly used by the organizations attending innovation conferences. A process cannot solve all your innovation challenges, but if you do not have a clear process shared through the organization (or at least those involved in innovation projects) where employees are trained AND have a chance to use the process regularly until it becomes a different way to think, it is unlikely you will succeed.


Helene Cahen is an experienced innovation consultant, facilitator, trainer, and coach with more than 20 years of insight into market research, communications and new product development. She has a proven record of guiding her clients toward user-centered innovation, helping them to discover solutions that address their organizations’ evolving needs.

Ms. Cahen’s international experience includes managing multi-million-dollar marketing research budgets for The Clorox Company and directing agency advertising campaigns for packaged goods companies such as Unilever, Nestle and Kraft Foods. She has held executive and management positions in advertising, marketing research, HR, finance, and sales as well as VP of Innovation for an online start up.

As an independent innovation consultant, Ms. Cahen receives accolades for her valuable assistance to Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and non-profits. She has been a lecturer, coach and facilitator for the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and the Haas Executive Program, teaching innovation principles to both students and executives.

Trained in Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking, Ms. Cahen received a Master of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership from the State University of New York. She has given presentations on Design Thinking at many conferences including ACA, CPSI, Creativity Expert Exchange, and the Design Thinking Unconference. Ms. Cahen is also a trained Foursight® Facilitator and Administrator.

Born and raised in Paris, France she graduated with a business degree from elite Sciences-Po Paris. She actively gives back to the community both financially and through volunteering with non-profit organizations.

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