Demonstrate Value by Looking for Gaps to Fill


I started the Innovation Group at Starbucks in 2009. Back then, there was a burning need to invent new ways to innovate faster. The team then was very small — just three people. Since then, the team has grown to 30 to 50 people.

The investments in the team validate how highly the organization valued the innovation team. But still, whenever the business softened just a little, the perception of the innovation team would quickly change. As the immediate needs of the business intensified, questions to the innovation team would change from discussing various horizons to, “Why are you working on that? That is three years out. We need something today.”

Since then, I have seen how other companies react in a cyclical downturn. Scrutiny on innovation teams becomes more focused. Leadership tends to look for quick wins.

How you can prepare.  Always maintain a clear understanding of the current state of the business. Build relationships with those on the front lines and closest to the customer. Listen carefully for leadership changes in sentiment and concern about the business. This will enable you to react to the current needs of the business. Demonstrate value by proactively reaching out to leaders with programs or products that may fill gaps. Pivot from long-term, three-to-five year projects to short-term wins. Shift the emphasis of your “talk track” to increasing speed-to-market and addressing today’s business needs. In a downturn, leadership’s focus shifts to the here and now. What can we do today to address the needs of our business?

This is when the innovation leader needs to modify their emphasis in meetings and presentations to highlight the value they can bring to the business today. If not, the leader can be perceived as being out of touch or less relevant.


Dennis McGrath spent 15 years at Starbucks, rising from New York City region store operations to Vice President of Global Innovation. Most recently, he was Senior Vice President and GM of Retail Innovation for Plated, the meal kit subscription service. He is a member of InnoLead’s Editorial Advisory Board.