The Innovator’s Challenge – How to ensure your career survives the latest corporate mandate for innovation

April 1, 2012

First, the good news. You’ve just been named to a high-profile innovation team that has been asked to find the next great idea that will lead your organization into the future. The team and its mandate have been anointed by the highest levels of the organization and provided with limitless resources.

Now, the bad news. You’ll have to work very hard to make sure your career survives the assignment.

Although innovation is one of the most commonly stated priorities for organizations of all sizes, few seem to make significant progress. Despite pledging support and resources, innovation teams often find they have little support for their new ideas once they have been hatched. Innovators who make too much noise to get the organization to live up to its original pledge can find they are pushed to the periphery. Or pushed out altogether.

It’s important to remember that implicit in every innovation initiative is a need for change. And change can be a dangerous endeavour depending on an organization’s culture. What might seem like common sense to members of an innovation team can be interpreted as a threat by co-workers who have enjoyed success, or become comfortable, working with old concepts and ideas.

And at the senior-most levels of an organization, including the board of directors, there can be a sense of reluctance to embrace the change that comes with innovation out of a fear of breaking something that isn’t broken. Most forward-thinking business minds know that change is essential for success. Even so, many organizations do a poor job of realizing when it’s time to change, and recognizing the right path to take.

That often puts the true innovator in a position of having to argue with success. This hurdle becomes even higher when innovators need to justify the high burn rates and escalating costs that seem to go hand in hand with innovation.

This is hardly a new concept. Italian philosopher and playwright Niccolo Machiavelli described this phenomenon in great detail in the 16th century. "It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises … partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them."

It is possible to innovate and thrive, but to do so requires that innovators spend some time thinking about the impact and consequences of their new ideas, and not just focus on the ideas themselves. Here are some basic rules to keep in mind when if you’re an innovator:

Don’t think too far outside the box. To be accepted by your organization, keep your innovation well aligned with the vision. Imagine you work for a battery company and the company vision is to give people better, brighter, more portable power. It makes sense for you to work on inventing a battery that lasts forever. Many true innovators lose touch with the vision of their own organizations, and present ideas that are too far outside the box to gain support.

Play out the implications of your innovation on the organization’s business model. One of the first questions that will arise when confronted by an act of true innovation is: is it profitable? Using the battery example again, it might not be enough to present a technological innovation that makes batteries last forever. It might be necessary to also devise a business model that outlines new price points and maintenance or update services that will allow the organization to continue earning against the new product. Think about all of the consequences of your innovation, and make sure you can answer the questions that will inevitably arise.  If your innovation will cannibalize another product or division, it’s better that you invent it than the competitor, but don’t expect the head of the other division to get on board.

Identify all of the possible winners, and share ownership of the innovation. It will be essential to sketch out all of the possible benefits of a new idea across the entire organization. Reach out to other stakeholders and try to get them to buy in and endorse the innovation. Use their feedback to hone the idea, knowing that this advance work will mean considerably less opposition down the road. If other areas of your organization will be affected, don’t surprise them with a bold, new idea and expect them to buy in right away. Cultivate support and share the credit.

Make sure it’s something the customer is willing to embrace. Just as important as cultivating internal support, it is essential to ensure that there is a market for the idea. Meet with key clients and get their feedback on concepts or prototypes. Use that feedback to focus the innovation so that it meets their needs. Showing client interest and support in a new idea is one of the most effective ways of soothing nervous executives into green lighting your project.

Don’t die on every hill. Suffering through rejection of a new idea is a difficult experience for any innovator. However, you have to keep an eye on the long term. If you dig in your heels and push too hard on every new idea, you might find that you no longer have an audience at the senior, decision-making levels of the organization. Remember that it might take several different pushes on several different iterations of a great idea to win the support of decision makers.

Being asked to innovate does not have to be a death sentence. However, it will require some deft stickhandling, and perhaps even a sense of delayed gratification. Innovation is a career-long pursuit. Make sure you are still around to see those great, new ideas come to fruition.

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