How AI Will Alter the Innovation Role

By Alex Slawsby |  November 7, 2023

Generative AI-based tools are going to radically reshape how corporations generate growth — whether that growth is linked to the core business, or to further-out adjacent and transformational opportunities. 

Alex Slawsby, Chief Growth Officer, InnoLead

Already, a raft of rudimentary generative AI tools have emerged that can be used to support new product, innovation, and R&D activities in pursuit of future growth, and more are on the way. This will mean that large organizations may no longer need:

  • People doing secondary research
  • People putting stickies on walls and running brainstorming sessions (unless purely for team-building purposes)
  • People building out canvases and pitch decks
  • People analyzing research insights / survey data
  • People building digital minimum viable products / prototypes
  • People doing a lot of governance / stage-gate tasks
  • People doing traditional startup scouting.

This will quickly create major new challenges for those with innovation-related roles; for consultants and advisors serving the arena; and for software providers.

Generative AI Tools Will Radically Reshape How Innovation Happens

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a “titanium ceiling” for many senior innovation leaders in incumbent companies. It has been near-impossible to rise above a VP/SVP/EVP/Chief Innovation Officer role into the heart of the C-suite — like CEO or COO — because innovation is not sufficiently valued, or considered a valid “ticket punch” on the way to the top. Many senior innovation leaders retire, write books, and become consultants when they encounter this titanium ceiling. It’s an important dynamic for more junior innovation professionals to understand. 

And many innovators at all levels have experienced constantly changing mandates, resource levels that rise and fall, and varying degrees of commitment to actually letting innovation teams deliver on their mandate.

We believe the deployment of generative AI-based tools in support of organizational growth will radically reshape how innovation happens in established organizations, and distribute these new capabilities more broadly throughout the company in much the same way that word processors brought about the end of typing pools. This shift will also have a significant impact on consultants who train or perform many of the activities above, and software platforms that support those activities. 

Startups will not be slowed by legal and compliance concerns, and we will likely see a new cycle of startups outrunning incumbent players…

What Organizations Will Still Need

So what help will organizations still need?

There will need to be:

  • People who do primary customer or user research, such as ethnography, because AI / tools can’t do that effectively, at least in the short-term.
  • People who:
    • Scan for generative AI-based growth-enablement tools, evaluate, and prioritize them
    • Deploy these tools to support the activities that enable growth (all along the innovation pipeline, from setting strategy down to execution)
    • Ensure there’s not “garbage in / garbage out,” in terms of the inputs into the tools
    • Ensure continuous optimization (scanning, deploying, assessing, improving) with regard to those tools and data sets.
  • People who can help their organizations with “change management” around growth and new initiatives. For example, convincing leaders and others to quickly and critically vet – and then approve, if warranted – new directions, opportunities, and ventures that AI generates (without perfect transparency with regard to the process it followed). Leaders and organizations that can figure this out, without letting “what ifs” tie their shoelaces together, will have a huge competitive advantage. Startups will not be slowed by legal and compliance concerns, and we will likely see a new cycle of startups outrunning incumbent players, creating huge amounts of new value.  
  • People who can decide how their organizations should best proceed to embrace AI-generated opportunities and solutions across core, adjacent, and transformational realms. In the core and adjacent realms, they will need to help allocate or reallocate internal resources and processes to embrace and implement continuous improvement opportunities related to AI. In the transformational realm, they will need to help make informed build/buy/partner decisions.
    • Build: It is already possible to leverage generative AI-based tools to build new digital ventures entirely. It is also an option to outsource AI-generated venture building to venture studios (especially when the venture is more complicated, or not entirely digital.)
    • Buy: Acquire and further shape, with the help of AI, startups that can deliver on the AI-generated venture vision.
    • Partner: Create partnerships with other large companies, startups, academia, and non-profits to realize AI-generated venture visions and opportunities.

Organizations will also value (or at least, should value) employees who can help them embrace the Innovator’s DNA skills…

  • Associative Thinking
  • Asking Questions
  • Observing
  • Experimenting
  • Networking.

Employees using these skills will be essential in identifying opportunities and ideas that get thrown into the GenAI-based process hopper (overseen by humans) for further development.

Consultants will see demand for helping:

  • Leadership teams align on AI language and understanding
  • Leadership teams develop, refine, and align on growth strategy.
  • Organizations most effectively develop and incentivize the capabilities and activities above.

The Evolution of Titles and Roles

It’s possible that today’s “Senior Innovation Leader” role will evolve into what is sometimes called a “Red Team Leader” in the world of cybersecurity — someone who pokes at existing vulnerabilities and is constantly on the offensive, testing out new tools to see what they can do. This leader will ideally have the ear of the CEO and board as the only person in the organization who spends all their time expecting their organization to be killed, and trying to figure out (A) how that’s going to happen, and (B) how to defend against it. In Amazon parlance, it’s an “Always Day One” person who doesn’t exist in most companies today, agitating against resting on laurels. 

Yes, the CEO and perhaps strategy executives are supposed to do this, but they’re often fully occupied with operating and growing the business today, hitting quarterly numbers, etc. They’re likely not spending much time, if any, regularly and broadly questioning the fundamental pillars of the business and continuously trying to identify very different (and likely hard-to-see) opportunities and threats out there.

Taking a step back, the desired outcome is sustained – and accelerating if possible – profitable growth. As we’ve always pointed out at InnoLead, this requires an appropriately-balanced portfolio of core, adjacent, and transformational growth activities with an appropriate balance of build / buy / partner methods in place to ensure that those activities can be successful. 

What is the title for this person? We’re already seeing roles emerge like “VP of Gen AI,” with responsibility for “leading the development and delivery of generative AI solutions” within a financial services company’s innovation lab, or Director of the AI Innovation Team at a major healthcare plan. This could be the next evolution of the Chief Transformation Officer role, but that individual really needs to have freedom from serving the business as it exists today, and perhaps should even be off the radar somewhat. The individual should be a very trusted confidant who can use all the Innovator’s DNA skills above to whisper in the ear of the CEO and the Board, with a bias for action.

Ultimately, if it’s impossible to do this with someone publicly acknowledged to have a CxO / Chief Transformation Officer role, suffering all kinds of slings and arrows as a result, perhaps this is where senior innovation leaders go once they’ve hit the titanium ceiling – they become experienced, external advisors.

The Upskilling Imperative

There are many ways in which innovation leaders can learn more about generative AI, how it is already impacting the practice of innovation and the pursuit of growth and how they might leverage generative AI-enabled tools going forward:

Experiment: There is no substitute for playing with the tools themselves to learn more about them. For example, ask ChatGPT “How can generative AI-based tools be used to accelerate corporate growth?” and then carry on a conversation with it to learn more.

Subscribe to Feeds: Generative AI explorers, enthusiasts and consultants are sharing constantly on X and other platforms the tools they’re using, what they’re finding and the outcomes they are achieving. Subscribe to / upvote relevant posters and posts and see what pops up. For example, consider following some of the top #GenerativeAI posters on X, generativeAI-related content on Substack and Medium, and insights shared by consultancies such as BCG and KPMG (both are InnoLead strategic partners.) GAI Insights runs online learning labs and in-person events related to generative AI.

Take Free or Inexpensive Online Courses: There are many different channels now offering a wide range of free or inexpensive online courses sharing insights about generative AI and teaching generative AI-related skills. For example, here is one example of a relevant LinkedIn Learning course, here is a list of relevant courses on Coursera and here is a series of relevant webinars offered by the MIT Sloan School of Management. MIT’s Sloan School also offers a six-week online course about AI’s implications for business strategy. In December, Board of Innovation is organizing an online conference, The Autonomous Innovation Summit.

We’re not suggesting that everyone working in innovation today needs to become a data scientist, or learn how to build machine learning systems from scratch. But the need for new, AI-powered approaches to innovation is becoming obvious. That will alter today’s innovation roles almost beyond recognition. For the next several months, it would not be a bad project to become the most knowledgeable person in your organization about emergent growth tools and capabilities; how other companies are deploying them; the necessary data sets; the risks; and being able to connect all of that with the organization’s culture and create a sense of urgency. Generative AI is not “yet another tech trend,” or a blip that will pass. For innovators who can help their organizations use these new tools to accelerate growth, while developing new kinds of competitive advantage, it is an enormous opportunity.

Alex Slawsby is Chief Growth Officer at InnoLead, and a former Director of Innovation at Embraer. He spent seven years as a team member at Innosight, the consulting firm founded by Clayton Christensen.