Gen AI May Be the Key to Innovation Teams’ Survival

By Alex Slawsby and Rachel Gordon |  January 18, 2024

We’re living in an era of endless reorgs, surprise layoffs, megamergers, and declining CEO tenure.

All of those forces create challenges for innovation teams trying to build a portfolio of long-term initiatives. If the next reorg, or the next occupant of the CEO’s office, alters the strategy or is more focused on making immediate changes to the core business, innovation teams can find themselves adrift — or even worse, searching for their next roles.

At the same time, generative AI is a “jump ball” in most companies. While some may have appointed a leader to oversee it, or formed a committee to explore the possibilities, even in those companies there can be paralysis as leaders weigh the benefits versus the risk, and try to put limits on employees taking a scattershot approach to using new tools — and potentially uploading sensitive data. 

Gen AI creates an opportunity for innovation teams in general, and certainly for teams struggling to maintain senior leadership support.

This is a technology with the potential to transform core business processes, as well as the way organizations experiment, launch new products, and build new businesses. It’s a technology that requires a plan for the near-term, mid-term, and long-term applications, as well as the people issues that will crop up. And it’s a technology that is evolving rapidly. But many companies are still wondering where to start.

That creates an opportunity for innovation teams in general, and certainly for teams struggling to maintain senior leadership support. Innovation teams are the experts at experimentation, which is the approach that will be absolutely essential for businesses to adopt as they explore use cases for this technology. If you view generative AI as purely a productivity tool, like having access to spreadsheet software or high-speed networks, then it makes sense to have the IT team at the wheel. But if you view it as more of a “primordial soup” from which new products and businesses will emerge — as well as new competitors — then it makes sense to have innovation leaders in the driver’s seat, or at least riding shotgun with IT.

At the moment, generative AI is a bit like a dark room full of cactuses. Entering or moving around seems like an inevitably painful experience.

At the moment, generative AI is a bit like a dark room full of cactuses. Entering or moving around seems like an inevitably painful experience. And your colleagues in Legal, Risk, Compliance, Human Resources, Corporate Communications, and other departments, will be only too eager to emphasize just how sharp the spikes of those cacti are. But if there’s a chest full of gold hidden somewhere in the room, innovation teams are well-equipped to be guides that can help find it.

So how do you proceed? We suggest seven steps to ensure that you’re maintaining relevance as this new era arrives.

1. Start by building a strong relationship with your IT group. They’re likely already evaluating or meeting with vendors large and small. (And if not, their sign off will be required for any vendors you hope to work with.) How can you support their vendor assessment process? Serve as a beta tester? Identify good use cases and pilot sites around the organization? 

Side note: You will be especially valuable as a partner to IT if you have a “treasure map” of where the most useful pools of customer data (or other proprietary data) sit in your company. Or if you can help map these sources and whip them into shape.

2. Make it a top priority to get smart on the terminology and tools. Find ways to bring on talent — even as interns — that is eager to leverage generative AI. Identify a stable of consultancies that can help execute custom work you may require.

3. Are there customers or partners who might want to co-create or test new offerings? Innovation teams can build that list and lay the groundwork for productive collaboration.

4. GenAI’s risk / reward potential is very high, necessitating a strategy of careful experimentation. Focus on how you can help your organization navigate these waters to minimize the former and maximize the latter. Look for ways you can align stakeholders, organize assumptions, identify specific risks, collect learning from tests, and create a virtuous cycle.

5. Develop a laser focus on generating quick wins — tangible, quantifiable outcomes that can be communicated inside and outside the organization.

6. Use these quick wins, and the coalition of colleagues who have helped you achieve them, to build a case with senior leadership for additional resources and continued support.

7. Begin addressing organizational concerns and anxieties around generative AI. Which groups are most concerned about its impact on their roles? How can you expose them to its upside? How can you work with senior leaders to shape a vision of how the organization wants to evolve or change in this next technological era — and what role its people will play?

It’s impossible to stave off the next re-org, merger, or press release announcing a new CEO. But the arrival of generative AI creates a big opportunity for corporate innovators to create near-term, mid-term, and long-term value. And that will help their teams not just survive the inevitable surprises, but thrive and grow.

Alex Slawsby is InnoLead’s Chief Growth Officer, and a former Innovation Director at the aerospace company Embraer. Rachel Gordon is Founder of the consultancy Triple Agent and a former corporate innovation leader at Pepsico and Virgin.

Featured image by Zulian Firmansyah on Unsplash.