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5 Ways to Strengthen Your Corporate Innovation Scaffolding

February 21, 2022
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I am often asked to address whether Chief Innovation Officers have the potential for success and to help them to build sustainable innovation — what I call the innovation scaffolding. Innovators often ask the following questions:

  • “Am I being set up to fail, or do I have a chance to actually make it work?”
  • “What can I do to be successful?”

Mohan Nair, CEO of Emerge Inc., and former Chief Innovation Officer, Cambia Health Solutions

Consider that innovation teams are not the same across organizations. Some are focused on building a culture of innovation in the enterprise through enabling igniters to create ideas. Others are focused on investing in external startups to spur innovation. Still other teams want to build new products from within, and then spin them out as independent, venture-backed companies. Depending on the goals, the approach to innovation and measurement of its success are different.

Although innovation looks different from one organization to the next, innovation teams often face the same challenge: conformity is the fuel of business. Corporations are trained to remove waste, organize the masses, and ensure consistency. In senior leadership meetings, most of the energy is directed to getting others into formation, driven by the belief that consistency of action yields the best results. But innovators are brought into organizations to bring new life, to change culture, to build new platforms and products, and to challenge the status quo. Often, innovators are told to break the rules, find new blue oceans, and transform the business model.

Conformity is the fuel of business. Corporations are trained to remove waste, organize the masses, and ensure consistency.

Here are five ways to help you pinpoint what you need to do to overcome barriers and strengthen your innovation scaffolding:


1. Watch Your Language and Add to the Collective

When organizations use language that emphasizes operational consistency, employees tend to take a hint — and so they eliminate anything that doesn’t support that consistency. When leaders tell their employees or associates that they are not to break the rules, they follow the rules so much to the letter that they forget about exception handling. As a result, dolphins — new ideas — get trapped in the tuna nets of the day-to-day. Leaders must carefully choose the language they use to frame an objective, to avoid unintentional consequences.

Define what innovation means. Many people believe they are already doing it… they are creating new products. Is that not innovation?

Recommendations:  

  • Consider introducing new language to your operating teams so they can utilize new methods to solve existing problems. Please do not interpret that as diving head-long into fancy terms that intimidate or confuse. I mean using terms like “igniters” to remind people that they are creative, and bringing in new language around innovation.
  • Define what innovation means. Many people believe they are already doing it (product management and engineering). They are creating new products. Is that not innovation? Try to frame your activities to help them accelerate and level up their work.
  • Invite product teams to join design sessions so they can witness the potentiality of producing rapid conceptualization with a multidisciplinary team. This could be beneficial in highlighting different points of view, and bringing new value to product teams. 
  • Get the attention of operating teams by solving pain points in the organization that have a direct impact on the revenue. For example, in my organization, we highlighted the top 10 pain points, and then assigned leaders to spend about two months with us to propose solutions. The results will highlight your team’s value, and how rapidly you can solve a previously ignored problem.

2. Observe the Arena

Corporations hire innovative minds to challenge the system, asking them to break the rules and bring forth new ideas. Then, they set up an inevitable immune system response by telling the rest of the organization to ignore anything but the revenue and targets set. It’s a behavior reminiscent of gladiators battling in an arena; it may have been good theater, but it was destructive and violent. Are innovators in your organization in that arena armored with nothing but lip service? Innovators are often fighting a losing battle, because they’re focusing on the future while everyone else is focused on the present. Why do we believe that this model works? We encourage these innovators to think outside the box but, in the end, they often end up inside the box.

The idea that innovation teams are an external catalyst to a well-oiled and operationally-potent organization is ludicrous.

I was once in a meeting with my peers, who were questioning the value of an independent innovation team. After that meeting, I vowed for my team to be, and to be perceived to be, valuable, and we focused on engaging our leadership and doing important strategic problem-solving. A year later, we were called “indispensable” by many in the organization. 

The idea that innovation teams are an external catalyst to a well-oiled and operationally-potent organization is ludicrous. Unless these teams are empowered from leadership, and can tap into the continuous influence of leaders, they tend to fail in the long run. 

Recommendations: 

  • Innovators have to find a pathway in between the “stomping feet” of the operational machine and the core business targets and revenue.
  • Unless operating teams create a mandate to support the innovation process, and can be held accountable by the innovators and top leadership, the inovation team will be doomed to the probability of the charging bulls: You survived this time, but you may not be as successful next time around.

 3. Be About the Fire Within – and Not About Being Fired

I meet with innovation executives who ask questions like, “How do I convince my boss that I need a bigger budget? How do I tell her that ROI comes later, because we have to invest first? How can I convince my peer group that innovation teams are a needed part of the enterprise?” Their concern for viability and their future is very understandable, but also something to be taken seriously. 

Recommendations:

  • You know you’re in trouble when, instead of displaying the fire within, you fear being fired. This fear is natural for all innovators, but if you’re not compensating for it with inspiration, you must reset and find a deeper motivation. Innovators are fueled by inspiration, while operating teams run on rational methods of investigation. So learn to speak their language to offer them a new perspective. If operating teams rely on walls, innovators can help them see through the walls.
  • Operating teams are not subordinated to innovation teams, nor are innovation teams subordinated by operating teams. Becoming an augmentation of the operating teams adds little value. While operating teams are the backbone of revenue and consistency, they can also march organizations off a cliff if they don’t adapt to the market. Balance the operating teams’ short-term goals with the innovation team’s long-term vision. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Together, they make it possible to look at the dials while driving to the future.

…If you’re not compensating for [fear] with inspiration, you must reset and find a deeper motivation.

4. Make Your Boss Accountable to Enable the Innovation Apparatus

Bosses have many things to concentrate on. Your boss may meet with you to encourage you and offer support, but she may have already forgotten the commitments she made before you closed the door on your way out. How do you keep your agenda on her mind? Meet her daily? Send her memos?

Recommendations:

Bosses who demand innovation in the world of the operationally potent must set two operating systems in play — one to cultivate new ideas for the future, and one to operate in the present. A leader’s role is to show the power of both innovation and operational effectiveness, defend the budgets for both systems to the board, and reward those who can traverse both systems effectively. The consistency that we all strive for should not focus on removing all redundancy in the organization, but in recognizing everyone as an innovator if they can traverse both systems effectively.

We are all tired and confused from the last two years of realizing our own mortality. 

5. The 5th and Final Perspective 

We are all tired and confused from the last two years of realizing our own mortality. Why should we innovate? Why not just do our jobs and be done with it?

Recommendations:

If you, like me, believe that the only way forward is through innovation, you have the obligation to bring that to your organization while having empathy for the stress and strain your colleagues may have suffered. They may have spent time pondering what innovation means to them, or questioned their own growth. You have both the opportunity and privilege to engage them in meaningful innovation activities, to prepare them with skills they can utilize in their careers.

In Conclusion…

The power of inclusive innovation is endless, when driven by inspired leaders, like you, who can see through and break through walls. It is exciting to be a part of a meaningful transformation of the markets, but to also transform from within. I have been lucky to have several such experiences that still charge me up. For me, this is what innovators hunger for. When they get that feeling of flow, they want it more — and it is this energy that fuels innovation within the enterprise.

To purposeful innovation!

 

Mohan Nair, CEO of Emerge Inc., is regular guest columnist at IL. He is a three-time corporate executive, three-time startup CXO, seven-time corporate startup founder, and three-time author who has led innovation teams for over 10 years.

(Featured photo by John Salvino on Unsplash.)

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