Senior leaders don’t tell procurement teams to “just go procure.” Instead, they provide funding, budget guidelines, and a set of intended outcomes so the organization can operate at its best. Why aren’t innovation teams getting the same treatment?
“It’s not that hard — Just go innovate something.”
Whether you’re a seasoned innovation leader or new to the innovation space, you’ve likely heard this before.
But let’s think about this logic — or lack thereof — for a moment: senior leaders don’t tell procurement teams to “just go procure.” Instead, they provide funding, budget guidelines, and a set of intended outcomes so the organization can operate at its best. Why aren’t innovation teams getting the same treatment?
In my experience advising dozens of global organizations on innovation strategy, I’ve found that all too often, senior leaders encourage innovation without defining the problems they are aiming to solve.
Turns out, this freeform approach is a recipe for disaster. According to Gartner, the average innovation program has a success rate as low as 17% to 45% — meaning today’s organizations are wasting time and money on innovation programs that don’t measure up (Source: Gartner, G00385719).
Luckily, there’s a better way. Spoiler alert: the ultimate goal is to adopt a portfolio approach to innovation. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the same goes for innovation management.
Here are seven steps you can take as an innovation leader to move from “I don’t get it” to “I’ve got this!” when senior management says, “Just go innovate.”
When a senior leader tells you to “Just go innovate,” they’re often saying this for one of two reasons:
Reason 1: They aren’t willing to invest in innovation.
It’s an afterthought. There’s no time to experiment and no funding for innovation programs.
Reason 2: They want to invest in innovation but don’t know where to start.
It’s hard to chart a path to progress when your organization keeps hitting the snooze button on innovation, so I’ll focus on Reason #2 and how to overcome it.
When you’re in the early stages of setting up an innovation program, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is a semantic one: innovation can mean so many things to different people. It might mean:
▶ Investing in technology — like AI, Blockchain, or 3D printing.
▶ Activities like hackathons and ideathons.
▶ High-level themes, like creating a culture of digital transformation.
▶ Silicon Valley mimicry (think: ping pong tables and kombucha on tap).
With so many potential directions to take, it can be hard to understand what success looks like. And when senior leaders have fuzzy definitions of innovation success, vague requests like “Just go innovate” are never too far behind.
To build a successful innovation management strategy, make sure everyone’s speaking the same language. Here’s a working definition I’ve found meets most organizations’ needs:
Innovation is the process of going from idea to intentional impact.
Let’s break this down.
▶ Process means that innovation requires a repeatable set of methods.
▶ Idea means that innovation involves the inception or creation of something new.
▶ Intentional Impact means that the purpose of innovation is to achieve a specific strategic result within an organization.
To summarize, innovation isn’t an end in itself. It isn’t a one-and-done deal. Much like a corporate hiring process, it’s a repeatable mechanism for achieving top-level goals involving a clear strategic purpose, a set of promising inputs, and proven methods for finding and rewarding the winners.
If senior leadership says, “Just go innovate,” try following up with questions about business objectives, metrics, and timelines. This will make it easier to design projects that match the scope and focus areas senior leadership expects.
Here’s an example. Before joining Productable, I was advising a company whose goal was a lofty one: create the next billion-dollar business by 2025.
At first glance, this statement might seem like a moonshot — but I like that it gives innovators a clear swim lane to operate in.
Much like a SMART goal, it’s time-bound (2025), it’s tied to a specific business objective (new business creation), and it even calls out a metric for employees to target ($1B).
The result? A clear picture of the organization’s ideal destination. Now the only job left is to make a plan for reaching that destination as a team.
After spelling out the intended outcomes of your innovation initiatives, you can start to design a system for success that helps you (A) make smart, fast decisions about which projects to invest in and (B) empower innovators with the tools they need to move projects forward.
Tip: Keep in mind that innovation success comes from efficiently managing a portfolio of projects. Not every innovation initiative needs to succeed (and, in fact, most of them won’t! It’s all part of the process).
At Productable, we recommend starting by outlining stages of maturity for your innovation projects so you can track progress in a consistent way across your organization. A helpful analogy here is the ACTFL scale for language proficiency, which gives folks a common framework for assessing language skills in a variety of contexts. Here are four sample stages that work well for most kinds of innovation initiatives:
Stage 1: Align on problem to solve and value of solution
Stage 2: Test desirability, feasibility, and viabilities of solution
Stage 3: Test solution in specific use case for outcomes
Stage 4: Sustain solution in specific use case and test solution for broader use
The next step is to come up with decision criteria for moving from one stage to the next. What conditions would make it clear that someone has found a desirable solution to a problem? Those conditions are the measuring stick you can use to assess whether an innovation initiative is ready to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 in the model above.
At each stage, offer blueprints that make it easier for innovators to meet the decision criteria. What resources or learning guides might help them pressure-test solutions, measure ROI, or scale? What experts can they loop in at each stage? Be sure to customize these resources for the appropriate scope, type of project, and innovator experience level, just as a language instructor would tailor their curriculum to their students’ proficiency level. Driving innovation success is all about meeting people where they are.
Lastly, cadenced communication can help turn your innovation program from a jumble of activities to a well-oiled machine. Try setting up automated bi-weekly reminders that encourage individual innovators to report barriers and wins, and give yourself a clear timeline for deciding on the fate of an innovation project — does it have enough traction to move onto the next stage, or is it time to pull the plug?
With clear stages, blueprints, and a communication framework that teams can follow at each stage of the innovation process, you’ll easily transform the stressful ambiguity of “Just go innovate” into a repeatable model for knocking your organizational objectives out of the park.
Once you have an impact goal and a methodology for moving innovation initiatives forward, you need motivated people to accelerate projects from idea to execution.
So — how do you motivate your team?
Kudos! Bonuses! Time off!
Creating a culture that rewards and celebrates innovation is a key to success. You need people to get excited about contributing to the innovation process. One organization that does this well is Tektronix. Rather than discouraging failure, Tektronix literally pays people bonuses for shutting down innovation initiatives sooner. After all, fast decision cycles save the company time and money by taking dead-end projects off the table. Along similar lines, the corporate innovation team at Tektronix holds an annual “Day of the Dead” ceremony to celebrate the innovation programs they’ve said “no” to, which encourages a portfolio mindset.
Motivating your team is key, but it isn’t the only way to move an innovation program forward! When projects show traction, it’s up to you as an innovation leader to unblock folks on the ground so they can grow their impact.
Based on my experience working with innovators and intrapreneurs, here are some of the most common roadblocks you’ll need to contend with:
▶ Not enough time to actually work on experiments, fail, and pivot
▶ Not enough money for experimentation and MVP testing
▶ Not enough executive support to bypass bureaucracy
By taking a portfolio approach to innovation management, you can keep a pulse on what’s working and connect successful innovators to the resources they need to scale and sustain their work.
When you’re managing thousands of innovation initiatives at once, software becomes a must-have. But keep in mind that a lot of innovation solutions out there prioritize ideas, not execution.
We recommend choosing a platform like Productable that allows you to not only gather and assess ideas but also define outcomes and align people, processes and resources.
That way, you’ll keep the momentum going through every stage of the innovation process.
Tyler Steinke is a lifelong relationship builder and problem solver focused on tackling the world’s biggest innovation challenges. Before joining Productable, he led corporate innovation at Runway Innovation Hub, where he grew the consulting practice to over 40 global clients and advised executives on innovation strategy, startup engagement, and corporate venture capital.
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Here's how innovators and innovation leaders can use clear Decision Criteria to support data-driven decision making.