Innovation leaders are usually action-oriented people, which is both a necessity for the job and a potential issue. In the research process for our enterprise innovation playbook Stories from the Trenches: Sustainable Innovation in the Corporate World, we surveyed over 100 innovation leaders and conducted in-depth interviews with six enterprise leaders across multiple industries on how they take action. During that process, we discovered some common mistakes that innovation leaders tend to make when launching their various projects, with most stemming from wanting to take action too quickly or act based on the wrong assumptions. In this blog post, we’re highlighting those as well as tips on how to avoid the problem in your innovation strategy.
Mistake: Assuming innovation is a single-point solution
Fundamentally, innovation is about creating something new in service of customer wants and needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a new discovery every time - “new” can be defined as new for the organization, new to your industry, or new to the whole world. Further, “new” could mean a process, a tool, a technology, or even a hire. Innovation is about improvement, not always using the latest technology.
In everything that innovation can be, it is not a business model or growth hack. The process may involve new models of doing business, but innovation is a holistic process that helps the business run better. Further, innovation is not always about big changes - more often than not, it’s about little changes consistently that make a big impact over time.
Solution: Reorient to an experimental approach
If your organization sees innovation as a single-point solution or cure-all, reorient the discussion to individual experiments. Focus on “if we do X, we think Y will happen,” then run that experiment and document the results.
Shifting to an experimental mindset will help remove the idea that innovation is there to solve everything - instead, it’s there to improve and create new things via trial and error.
Mistake: Assuming you only need the CEO’s buy-in
There’s an assumption held by some that once that the CEO is on board, the innovation team can go do its work unencumbered. Don’t fall for this trap. In reality, innovation leaders need buy-in from everyone in the organization that has P&L responsibility. Specifically, you have to help senior and middle managers understand what’s going on because they will be your key influencers at an individual employee level.
Once you have buy-in, you have to continue building momentum - buy-in is not a one-time activity. Anyone can get excited for a single project. You have to make sure there are wins coming constantly (even just small ones) to keep the company’s eyes on the long-term prize.
Solution: Focus on all P&L leaders
If you’re in a spot where the CEO is on board, that’s amazing. Your next job is to make sure that the key priorities held by P&L leaders are also on your list of priorities. After all, innovation is about helping the business move forward - and that includes all peer executives and leaders.
Once you have initial momentum, continue building it with regular communications. Share the wins, learnings, and progress reports as frequently as possible. Even if you don’t have a big meeting every time, simple documentation in a common folder can help you a lot.
Mistake: Thinking of innovation as a public relations tactic
Innovation isn’t about marketing, but many companies talk about innovation projects publicly for the PR boost. While there’s nothing wrong with this, don’t tackle innovation projects only for the PR spectacle.
When Allyson Laurence, Head of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation, North America at Citi, shared the company’s innovation strategies, she made one thing clear: the company doesn’t like putting out press releases or talking about innovation projects until they are complete.
Internally, though, Citi shares regular updates on innovation project progress. The CEO and leadership frequently talk with employees about how the company partners with clients on innovation projects. And when things don’t work out as planned, the company releases notes about the lessons learned so other teams working on innovation projects can (hopefully) avoid the same pitfalls.
Not talking about innovation projects publicly until they’re done also saves you from potential embarrassment if the market doesn’t understand your project. When Orchid Bertelsen, the head of innovation for Nestle, thought through innovation at the company, a critical element of brainstorming was understanding which spaces the market expects Nestle to play in that are avant garde but cool, and which spaces the market felt that Nestle “didn’t have a right” to play in. This doesn’t mean you can’t take on big, bold projects, but if you talk about everything publicly, you might find yourself in a situation where people are hoping you fail.
Solution: Question every activity’s connection to business outcomes
If your organization sees innovation as a PR exercise, be clear in making sure that every innovation activity directly ties to a P&L leader’s priorities or to a larger strategic business goal. And if possible, wait until after your innovation initiative(s) are complete to tell the story publicly.
Mistakes are part of the game
Making mistakes is part of the innovation game, and if you happen to make them, use it as an opportunity to talk about your failures and learnings. At the same time, we understand that you want to avoid as many as possible. That’s why we wrote this post. We hope you’ll be able to use it to identify mistakes as they are heading your way so you can more easily sidestep or recover from them. Good luck!
For more advice on how to approach your innovation initiatives, and for practical frameworks for success from 6 top global CIOs, check out our enterprise innovation playbook Stories from the Trenches: Sustainable Innovation in the Corporate World.
Interested in connecting with other Innovation and technology executives to share strategies, experiences and learnings? The Innovation Forum brings together Innovation execs across sectors to connect, share and support each other. Get exclusive resources, expert talks and first access to our growing community of B2B startups. Learn more by emailing me at Jon@forumvc.com.