Misalignment with the C-suite. We’ve all been there.
The reasons are many: innovation is too uncertain and isn’t solving near-term business challenges. The C-suite is risk averse, and fears failure. Other executives believe innovation (and its resources) are competing for resources they would rather have in their purview. Some just don’t “get” innovation. The innovation team uses language that no one else understands.
Through my work as a corporate innovator at Starbucks, as well as my experience as an innovation consultant to several food and beverage companies, I’ve seen a variety of techniques used successfully to align the C-suite in support of the innovation teams, strategies, and activities — even in uncertain economic times.
Here are the five highest-impact techniques:
1. C-suite Ethnography
As innovators, we’re conditioned to inspire and sell in our ideas and solutions. Which is necessary. But without active and ongoing C-suite listening, it sets up blind spots.
Just as we listen deeply to our consumers or end-users, we should listen to our executives. What’s on their minds? What are they worried about? What blind spots do they think the organization has? What problems are they struggling to solve? If they led innovation, what would their priorities be? Who on their team should you be meeting with? How often would they like you to have these types of conversations with them?
Resist the urge to problem solve in the moment. Instead, reflect back what you’ve heard. Document the conversation for your team and call out key learnings to inform your work. Don’t ignore negative feedback or concerns; turn them into design challenges to be solved. When appropriate, credit the individual executives for solutions that your team wouldn’t have found without the exec’s insights.
2. Startup Mentality
Think and act lean; be a good steward of company resources. You’re likely already dealing with a few executives who believe your innovation resources would be better spent elsewhere.
If we didn’t use our budget, we offered it back.
When we first set up what is now the Tryer Center at Starbucks (focused on front-end retail innovation), it would have been easy to ask for (and get) a big budget, a bespoke space, etc. But truly, we were still developing our pipeline, and our focus on prototyping and iteration meant we weren’t entirely sure of our budget needs. Despite having formalized annual budgets and headcount, we asked our CFO to serve as an informal advisor. We met quarterly to discuss where we were placing our innovation “bets”; what we hoped to learn; and what subject matter expertise (internal and external) needed to be funded and for which duration. And if we didn’t use our budget, we offered it back. We also spent our first few years sharing space in a garage-like pilot plant that was pretty bare bones — all of which built us credibility as a team focused on the work, not the “trappings,” and made the CFO a powerful ally to innovation.
3. Show (Don’t Just Tell)
The ability to envision an innovation’s future state is not universal. And those who can’t “see” it won’t always tell you they can’t see it. Finding a way to visually represent your end state (even if it’s early in the design phase) is a powerful tool in soliciting engagement, excitement, and alignment.
The “how” will vary. Physical and digital MVPs (minimum viable products) are always my preferred tactic, but I work in retail/food and beverage. Short-form videos, sizzle reels, comic strips, rough sketches, and renderings all work too.
And show them the money. Monetize the initiative, even if you’re giving a range and your confidence is ~50-60 percent. Share your plan to learn, iterate, increase your confidence percent and de-risk the initiative. Leverage the ensuing C-suite conversation to understand where there are concerns and fears, and build your next iterations to solve those challenges.
4. Ask for Tribute
Bringing innovation successfully to market means a successful hand-off, ideally with a business unit’s “hands” on the end of the baton, helping you get the innovation over the finish line. And the earlier they reach for it, the faster to market and smoother the process.
While budget contribution is great, there are other highly impactful ways to gain commitment.
When it comes to executive alignment, having skin in the game is always better than getting a head nod. And while budget contribution is great, there are other highly impactful ways to gain commitment. Subject matter expertise from the executive’s function is good; getting that SME on a time-limited assignment to support the initiative is better. At Starbucks, we put a finance manager into the innovation team on a time-limited assignment to help us as portfolio manager, while also templatizing our monetization efforts. Agreeing to support a real-world market test is good; having one of the executive’s team members design key go-to-market components of the test is better. At a beverage manufacturer, we trained the sales organization to source customers for innovation testing, and to lead the testing process with their customers.
5. Be Humble
Lack of alignment can also come from lack of understanding. As innovators, we have our own language of MVPs, prototypes, wireframes, etc. We seemingly take up outsized resources for a return-on-investment that seems far in the future. Building confidence and competence across the C-suite means bringing people along, versus leaving them behind. Skip the innovation jargon and use language that each functional executive can understand. Share your process not only to provide visibility, but also to grow your colleagues’ competence and understanding. Articulate clearly what you need from the C-suite. Acknowledge that your innovation initiatives may necessitate organizational transformation, which can be challenging in functions where consistency and predictability historically drive success. Use the above-mentioned C-suite Ethnography to provide safe 1:1 space to answer questions, address concerns and create innovation allies.
Creating strong alignment with the C-suite is worth investing time in — even though it’s often difficult. Two data points from the new Benchmarking Innovation Impact report from InnoLead and KPMG back this up:
- What’s the biggest enabler of innovation success? Leadership support.
- What is the biggest factor that leads to additional budget and people? Senior leadership is excited about the vision.
Time to get busy with these five techniques!
Thanks to the participants in my Impact Silicon Valley session last year on C-suite alignment, who provided useful insights that helped shape this article. To learn more about me, please visit Antalek Partners.
Join InnoLead for a LinkedIn audio session with Antalek and three other executives on achieving better alignment with your C-suite on February 10, 2023 at 1 p.m. ET.