Corporate Innovation

Innovation Leaders Need to Think Like Wilderness Guides. Here’s Why.

Sep 8, 2020
min read

When you hear the title “Chief Innovation Officer,” it’s easy to imagine a c-suite executive just like any other. In many ways that’s a fair image, but the role of a CIO is more like a wilderness guide than a corporate leader because the process of innovation is inherently messy. There are ideas, flops, failures, small wins, big wins, and cycles of learning. There is no one-size-fits-all path in good innovation, something we uncovered during the research process for our enterprise innovation playbook Stories from the Trenches: Sustainable Innovation in the Corporate World. Instead, innovation leaders are the people who have to bring everyone together, take stock of relevant skills for the journey, bring in relevant additional skill sets or partners, and keep everyone motivated with milestones along the not so straight path.

The adventure of creating something new

At a conceptual level, innovation in the corporate world is about creating something new for the organization. It’s both that simple and that complicated. New could mean a new process applied to the existing business, hiring new people or training new skill sets, buying new technology or tools, or building brand new technologies from scratch.

Further, there are many ways to create something new: 

  • Build it in-house.
  • Outsource development.
  • Build in partnership with another organization or entity. 
  • Borrow from another industry or company and adapt to yours. 
  • Buy a pre-existing solution and adapt it to your organization. 
  • Merge with another entity that has complementary skills or tools. 
  • Leverage a tool on the market already but use it in a novel way for your organization. 

Given how many different ways you can slice it,  it’s clear that innovation is not the same for every large business. It may not even be the same for competitive organizations of the same size and in the same industry.

Buy in, stakeholders, and planning, oh my

Once you’ve settled on what innovation means for the organization, you need to get buy in. In our research, we discovered a common misconception from innovation leaders is assuming that you only need buy in from the CEO. The reality is that innovation leaders need buy-in from the CEO, the board, the c-suite, and team leaders or other middle managers within the organization. When you have the CEOs buy-in, you have permission to act. But when you have everyone else’s buy-in, you remove obstacles and ensure that other leaders in the organization will champion your agenda. 

However, the process of buy-in is not just about sharing a grand idea and hoping for the best. There are a lot of twists and turns to the job, including making sure that your innovation goals are focused on solving current and future organizational problems. In short: if you don’t help leaders with their priorities, you won’t have support. Even with support for your general concept of innovation, many leaders will be fearful (whether they admit it or not) that your work will put them out of a job. Be cognizant of that, knowing that you have to assuage their concerns as much as get them excited for the road ahead.

The innovation wilderness

Since innovation work is based on navigating big visions, small detours, and ensuring you build positive momentum with stakeholders, it’s best to think of your role as a wilderness guide. As someone with experience with innovation projects, you have some familiarity with this “unknown” but cannot predict it with absolute certainty. As such, you guide people through as best you can, making tweaks and pit stops as needed along the way.  

Here’s what that looks like: 

  • Prepare everyone for the journey ahead, both in terms of necessary items and the excitement of benefits to come. 
  • Address and assuage any concerns people have about the journey.
  • Explain the journey and necessary steps using terms and language that the group will understand.
  • Forge ahead, paving the way so your team can walk as comfortably as possible through the unknown. 
  • Highlight landmarks, milestones, and interesting tidbits along the way to not only show progress but also keep people engaged for the longer journey. 
  • Add any necessary additional team members, help and encourage people feeling exhausted by the journey, and bring common purpose to the team.

Be a guide, not a boss

Many corporate leaders - CEOs included - got to their positions because they are incredibly strong linear thinkers. They can build roadmaps, strategies, and bring people on a linear path. Innovation leaders, according to Lisa Wardlaw, the former Chief Innovation Officer at Munich RE, are often non-linear thinkers that “think in technicolor.”

So instead of thinking of the innovation leader role as a c-suite executive, think of it as a wilderness guide that needs to take the team to new, unexplored places. You’ll need to make each person feel like they are on a linear path that applies to them, helping them see the path when they can’t at first. And in the background you’ll be zig-zagging through all of the risks, opportunities, and choices in front of you.

For more advice on how to approach your innovation initiatives, and for practical frameworks for success, check out our enterprise innovation playbook Stories from the Trenches: Sustainable Innovation in the Corporate World.


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