Innovation Sponsors: Leave This Seat at the Innovation Table Empty and it Will Come Back to Haunt You


If you are on the board, a member of the C-Suite or a P&L accountable leader in a larger firm, there is a common blind spot when launching innovation initiatives.

I was reminded of this during a phone call with a colleague whom I did several large-scale breakout programs with while in an op’s role at a global firm.  We were going over the ones that “made it” and talking about the advice and insights that no one tells you in the literature.  There was one project in particular that started to show great signs of promise (and suddenly had the rug pulled out from under it) that provided a lesson that I make sure my current clients don’t have to learn the hard way.

The truth is, that without thoughtful engagement planning, your colleagues who smile in the hallway are (without knowing it) quietly and relentlessly undermining your innovation work.  They are not bad people – it’s what firms do.

First, a bit of context. To paraphrase Dickens, being a growth leader in an established firm is both the best of times and the worst of times.  When the firm chooses a new direction, it’s usually all in. In fact, it over commits (see a post about that, here). Having the full resources of the firm to call on to serve the customers in new ways is intoxicating.  However, working within the boundaries of the organization’s current processes and structures can be agonizing.

For those who do it well, harmonizing those two extremes is extraordinarily satisfying, and when looking in the rearview mirror, all the stakeholders agree it was the right thing to do.  Anchoring this point, there are benefits for the entire ecosystem: For the investors and stakeholders of the firm, discovering new, less competitive spaces produces financial vitality combined with access to new talent and thinking.  Second, the leaders’ careers are given new life when new channels for growth are opened.  Finally, a region’s economics can be profoundly improved by having successful constituent firms – and those that have serial successful growth programs are among the strongest.

So with those three benefits, why the internal tension?

There are two deep and pervasive drivers of resistance:

  • The first is the incredibly strong drive of human nature to form patterns and eliminate ambiguity.  We humans are pattern-making machines.  We drive the same routes, buy coffee at the same stores and put our pens in the same spot, in the same drawer, every day.
  • The second is that a firm subtly and overtly rewards results for those who deliver well on the existing engine of growth with bonuses, positive performance reviews and promotions.

When these are combined with the need for organizations to produce repeatable results for shareholders, we build engines of consistency within our business.

If we don’t have a dialogue about how the firms are best served by both investing in the core and new projects at the outset, this strong engine will be set against those who are working to bring in the “new.” It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently set up a competitive internal situation with the new investment, and when you do, it may be some time before you realize that your peers are “drilling holes in your boat” while you are doing your best to create new value.

The most often omitted stakeholder is the balance of the firm that is not part of the “core” innovation team.

So as a sponsor of  growth, how do you set programs up in the best possible way with the firm as a whole? Let me offer three suggestions:

  1. Set a tight playing field for innovation efforts.  One of the major concerns of business unit leaders that are not involved with the innovation team is that those leading growth are allowed too much discretion and aren’t managed for performance.  This can be mitigated by using a process that provides a specific “box” for innovation efforts to take part in with well-design “tranches” of funding to complete specific deliverables.  Within that box, the innovation team needs to be free to exercise large amounts of discretion (make wide the narrow road).
  2. Use a strategy process that drives collaboration.  One of the best ways to assure the senior team is on board is to build out your core and innovation strategies as one holistic portfolio.  This deals with the shared resources conflict, as innovation is not optional, but “in the plan,” with solid structure and good risk management (see this post for more on a process to do this).
  3. When you communicate in large group sessions, highlight the contributions of those who aren’t driving the innovation team, but who are making the investment possible with high-performing products and services that allow the innovation effort.  Second, highlight the risks and rewards of the work the team is doing, and encourage the larger group to contribute their best efforts.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a large number of process details, decision-making methodology and facilitation know-how that go into doing this well.  If you’d like to have a deeper dive on how this all works, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Did you enjoy this blog post?
Sign up to get access to Scott's monthly innovation newsletter and blog post.