Getting Leadership on Board with Corporate Innovation

September 4, 2019

In our “Getting Leadership on Board with Corporate Innovation” Master Class, Brant Cooper of Moves the Needle discussed how teams can build strategic consensus with players at the top. Other topics of discussion included:

  • The current corporate environment and its threats to innovation
  • Why moving fast and operating lean matter in 2019
  • The problem with the innovation horizons
  • Solutions that allow working in harmony with leadership.

Cooper is the CEO of Moves the Needle and has more than 20 years of experience helping companies bring high-growth products to market. He is also the New York Times best selling author of The Lean Entrepreneur. Download a PDF of the slide deck.

The Current Environment & Innovation Threats

During his presentation, Cooper identified a common dilemma for corporate innovators: Even though leaders may have the best intentions and recognize the need to work differently, little change actually occurs. “Why is it that this change is so slow…and what can we do to overcome that?” Cooper postulated.

In order to find out the cause of this phenomenon, Cooper said his team spoke to corporate leaders.

“We’ve literally seen leaders sort of stand up in front of the company and [say], ‘Listen, I’m telling you all to be more entrepreneurial… And I don’t understand why you can’t just go out and do it,'” he said. “There’s…this failure to realize that…[change] is way deeper and way more difficult than simply championing a cause.”

Cooper also said that leaders often view adopting a new, more innovative way of working as additive — work that must be completed in addition to core responsibilities.

Cooper emphasized the importance of understanding the concerns and the challenges leadership face. “If you’re able to get to that level of empathy for your leadership,” he said, “I think that this is the way we’re going to be able to drive change.”

Why Support Matters 

With analysts forecasting a recession, Cooper emphasized the urgency of gaining leadership support.

“Especially if we’ve got a recession coming our way…programs are really going to need leadership support in order to maintain their budgets and maintain their progress towards impact,” Cooper said.

Cooper also noted in tough economic times, innovation budgets are the first to constrict or even be cut in their entirety.

“If you’ve borrowed resources from the business units, those business units want those resources back. We tend to hunker down into execution mode,” Cooper said. “And the way you make that case [for innovation] is that you’re going to drive near-term impact for these business units.”

The Problem with the Innovation Horizons

During the call, Cooper said that McKinsey’s Innovation Horizons are ineffective. This model divides innovation into different horizons: the first focuses on the near term; the second involves initiatives that will yield results in the next few years; and the third refers to projects with a timeline of five or more years.

This model focuses on time frames, Cooper says, instead of how innovative an idea is. “If you want to launch a new product into an emerging market, and it takes five years…that’s H3. There may be no innovation involved,” he noted.

Cooper then offered an alternative model that redefines the three horizons, and adds an “H0.”

“H0 is basically how do you…reinvent core business functions in order to support this new [agile] way of working inside [and] across the enterprise,” Cooper said. “[T]he moment you understand that you have to transform the entire organization so that everybody understands how to deal with uncertainty, then these primary core functions [like HR and accounting] also need to be able to reinvent themselves.”

According to Cooper, H1 then focuses on remaining competitive through incremental innovations and continuous improvements. Running experiments and empathy work fall in this category, he said.

Cooper said H2 then becomes the derivative products and the adjacent markets.

Cooper’s H3 deals with activities that create new businesses. “H3 is a is its own diverse portfolio of startup investments, technology scouting, [and] running experiments,” Cooper said.

Best Practices 

During the conversation, Cooper highlighted five best practices that can help innovators get support for their projects or new ways of working.

How to Gain Leadership Support

  1. Define innovation.
  2. Act like an entrepreneur.
  3. Define project metrics.
  4. Train up — train your leadership.
  5. Implement agile.

“Number one…organizationally, you need to define innovation. And this needs to be your company’s definition, and it needs to be universal,” Cooper said. “I actually encourage people to not use the word innovation. … Use a word that’s going to resonate with everybody inside the company.”

Cooper suggested words like “growth” and “scalability” as alternatives.

“Number two, you must act like an entrepreneur. … Your group is an internal startup. Your other stakeholders inside your company are your customers,” Cooper said. “You must run experiments, and you must use evidence in order to advance your…innovation or your growth practices across those time horizons inside your internal company.”

The third tip, Cooper said, is to define project metrics. He emphasized that measuring customer behavior and demonstrating value create confidence in new programs.

“Train up [is] number four. The leaders don’t know how to behave,” Cooper said. “So the way they’re going to learn these skills is by watching you, and participating, and you teaching them how to do it. … You need to up-level their skills by demonstrating what is the right way to lead.”

The last element, Cooper said, involves implementing agile both at the leadership and employee levels. “If you can operate in a sprint mode,” he said, “your leadership can operate in a sprint mode.”

Cooper also suggested listeners use Move the Needle’s Leadership Zoom tool, which aims to help innovators connect their projects with leadership. See the resource.