What I Wish I Knew Before I Joined the Innovation Team

By Matt Mueller, Contributing Columnist |  February 24, 2022

I was shocked when one Friday afternoon I got a call to go to the executive suite to speak with one of my company’s top leaders.   

 “Matt, sit down. I’ve wanted to speak to you about this for a while now. We are starting an innovation department, and we would like for you to join the team. I think you can really help us bring innovation insights to life and give some structure to the department.” 

Matt Mueller

I have to admit, the request was shocking. Put yourself in my position: I was a category manager in a big food brand. I had retail management experience, but no background in innovation. Now, I would be jump-starting a team to run innovation for the company, with two colleagues and a Vice President as our sponsor. What do I know about innovation? Excitement and fear rushed through my veins.

“Wow. This is exciting!” I responded, “Let me think about it over the weekend, and I’ll give you an answer on Monday.” I needed time to wrap my head around this out-of-left-field request. 

That Friday evening, I went home and had a long conversation with my family about the opportunity. I was intimidated and not very confident, but I think I responded like many of us would: “Heck yeah, let’s innovate!”

Looking back, I realized I completely missed the mark; I had no clue what innovation really was.

The entire weekend, I was unable to think about anything else but my new role. The thoughts were running wild in my head… “We are definitely going to need an app — that’s table stakes these days. Oh, and some digital screens. What establishment doesn’t have those? And absolutely some robots and maybe some lasers!” Embarrassingly, I admit I even created a futuristic-looking PowerPoint template, with a poor man’s Star Wars-meets-Minority Report vibe. I even included some neon lightsaber-like elements to highlight titles. It was awful! I don’t even like Star Wars.

Looking back, I realized I completely missed the mark; I had no clue what innovation really was. Today, I wish I could have a conversation with myself seven years ago about how to tackle the job.

The Challenges You Don’t See Coming

After starting the role, I became a desktop researcher for all things innovation. I needed the education. I read all of the classics — The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s Solution, Blue Ocean Strategy, The Inevitable, and the list goes on. I learned different philosophies on how to innovate, like design thinking, stage-gate, Six Sigma, and research methodologies like ethnographic interviews, focus groups, and surveys. The amount of information I collected was immense — and I applied almost none of it. I was over-stimulated, and with a heavy workload it felt like I was moving forward just for the sake of moving. Albert Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” After this experience, I disagree with the great man’s statement; if we don’t think about where we want to go, we will be riding a bicycle in circles our whole life. What’s the point of that?

I was over-stimulated, and with a heavy workload, it felt like I was moving forward just for the sake of moving.

Most challenges that innovators come across in their early days of starting an innovation team aren’t so obvious; they’re less technical and more tactical. I wished the literature on innovation would have warned me of at least one of these challenges:

Finding Innovation Partners

The greatest challenge when starting an innovation team is pulling other departments into the fold with you. It is easy to assume that the innovation team is solely responsible for innovation, while the rest of the organization keeps up the routine tasks to keep the business running. This might be fine at first, but it’s problematic when you want to test an idea and you are unable to find participants outside your department. It brought me back to my days in retail, when the shoe was on the other foot, so to speak. I remember participating in tests set up by the corporate office. I never liked having to do them; the tests never made my job easier, and instead gave me more work to do.

Unclear Expectations

When launching an innovation test, you have to figure out your metrics for success. Sometimes it can be very obvious, like increasing sales. Other metrics are harder to measure, like creating a more pleasurable in-store shopping experience. The latter are the ones that will come up to bite you. They can be vague and up for interpretation. What does the customer define as pleasurable? Your pleasurable shopping experience may be very different from mine. I may think a shopping experience with juggling clowns would be pleasurable, but you just want to get in and out of the store without a minumum of hassle. So what is the pleasurable experience we are going to deliver? The innovator’s metric should align with the outcome that key stakeholders want to see. As an example, an innovation team may go astray by using a Likert scale survey to measure customer experience, when key stakeholders actually wanted to track trip frequency.

The Dreaded Tangent

Creativity is essential to innovation, but too many ideas can create tangents. The downside of creativity is that once the creative wheels are greased and turning, it’s hard to stop the train from barrelling down the track. For example, if you are trying to get more clarity on the current product selection and create a great merchandising technique that does that — big win! Then you get an idea to better showcase impulse items to create incremental sales. Both ideas might be great and complementary, but pursuing both will create confusion on what you are really trying to solve for. Are you trying to create clarity on the product selection? Or are you trying to showcase products that might pair well with other products?

Too many tangents will make you lose sight of what your original goal was, and why it’s important. Without focus, a concept that was at first prescriptive to solve a problem has become a silver bullet that attempts to solve all of our problems by being everything to everyone. Unfortunately, it will become watered down and fail to become anything to anyone. The lack of focus will also make it difficult for key stakeholders in the organization to understand what the concept is, and to provide useful feedback. Questions from confused stakeholders will ultimately create more tangents, and new streams of work for you.    

Aimless Innovation

Innovation is about going fast — “Disrupt or be disrupted.” “Fail fast.” “If you are not innovating, you’re dying.” All true, but if you go fast without looking ahead, you’ll find yourself like Wile E. Coyote, treading air off a cliff.

When I started to reflect mindfully on innovation, I realized that my day-to-day actions were not impactful.

Aimless innovation may remind you of over-stimulation from too much screen time on your cell phone. With an endless stream of emails, text messages, phone calls, social media notifications, and limitless content to consume, our minds spiral. We lose the ability to focus.

Mindfulness has become one of the best solutions to date to solve the overstimulation of cell phones. It teaches us to be present in the moment and helps us get away from aimless thoughts and actions. Because I felt overstimulated when it came to innovation, it made me think that mindfulness could also solve for aimless innovation.

When I started to reflect mindfully on innovation, I realized that my day-to-day actions were not impactful. The plethora of content and philosophies that I consumed cluttered my mind and over-complicated the topic. My approach to new technology and disruption caused more harm than good. The focus of my meditations would be to ask broader questions of my actions like, “Why are we innovating?” or “How might we involve the hand-off team earlier in the process?” I stopped moving forward for the sake of moving forward, and I spent more time reflecting and thinking about how to successfully test and launch innovations.

The 3 P’s of Mindful Innovation

Taking a beat to think about what I was doing in the moment was enriching. I stopped reading so many books and worrying about trying to disrupt at every turn, and instead lived in the moment and reflected on how we might innovate simply. The quiet reflection allowed me to really think through what I was doing. I would take 30 minutes of quiet time — no phone, no emails, just my thoughts — and think about the following 3 P’s of Mindful Innovation:

1. Be Purposeful

Ask yourself the following questions before starting any project:

  • Where are we going? When you know which direction to head, you can start planning. Be as specific as possible. Are you going to stay on top of emerging consumer trends? Or are you going to find the next viable business model?
  • Why are we doing this? Is your end goal worth it, and will it inspire others? As an example, you are searching for the next viable business model to remain relevant in your market. That’s likely a goal that will get people engaged if they see risks to your current positioning.
  • Who is going with us? How will we get there? As your team assembles and gains new knowledge, these answers may change, but always define the who and the how, and align them with your first two questions.

2. Be Practical

Everyone wants to be disruptive, and create the next iPhone of their industry. Disruptive innovation is great for creating inspiration and launching startups. But in the context of the day-to-day in a large corporation, innovation must be balanced with practicality. What can you innovate that can be used by the company tomorrow?

Short-term, practical innovation will build momentum for the innovation team, because people can see the progress.

Think about it from the perspective of a sales team. If you were to ask for their help in identifying a tool to benefit sales in ten years versus next month, which one would they be more inclined to help with? Probably the tool that helps them in a month, even if it has a smaller overall impact compared to the ten year tool. These smaller incremental gains to the organization will impact the bottom line sooner, making their jobs better now. Short-term, practical innovation will build momentum for the innovation team because people can see the progress. Leveraging that progress will make it easier to find innovation partners on both incremental and disruptive ventures.

3. Be Participatory

Innovation is a team sport. When looking for collaborations to bring your innovation team to new heights, consider three participant groups: 

  • Executive Sponsors: Provide scheduled updates, get them involved with the initial workshop, and allow them to provide feedback along the way.
  • Cross-Functional Partners: Who needs to be involved with your project early on? Pull in experts in area you are exploring, or the people who will be handed the baton once the innovation is ready to launch.
  • Consumers: Plan for the consumer voice to be heard loud and clear throughout the process, because once you launch, you need someone to buy your offering. Listen to consumers on the front end of the project to ensure you understand their problems and how they would use your innovation. Check in with them along the way to make sure that the progress makes sense. And never, ever think that you know what the consumer wants. The truth is, neither you nor colleagues in the organization have a 100 percent accurate “gut feel” for consumer behavior. Don’t take the consumer for granted.

Participation is key to making any innovation successful, but it needs to be active participation. This means that you’re not “talking at them.” There needs to be two-way engagement throughout the process. As the innovator, you need to actively listen to all of your participant groups, make sure you understand them, and take into account their feedback and adjust accordingly.

Innovation can be overwhelming, confusing, complicated — if you let it. Consuming an excessive amount of content while you are learning to innovate can cause “monkey brain innovation,” or a lack of focus and unclear expectations. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in your organization that wants to work with you. By using mindfulness techniques, you can slow down, and zero in on the truly important factors for successful innovation.


Matt Mueller, Senior Innovation Strategist at Mintel, is a former Insights Manager at C.A. Fortune and Senior Manager and Innovation Strategist at Boar’s Head Brand.