Stop Innovation Superhero Syndrome

By Alex Slawsby |  January 6, 2021

In many large organizations, innovation leaders and teams glorify the idea of the intrapreneur who beats incredible odds to shape the future of the organization. Making change happen and getting people to think differently is hard, and there’s a natural assumption that you need people who are crazy and passionate. You need people who will fight through wind, snow, sleet, and the dark of night to get a breakthrough initiative across the finish line. 

You need superheroes. And maybe they even need their own superhero lair — a lab or studio insulated from the rest of the organization, complete with its own special mystique.

But in most companies, the superhero approach just doesn’t work. The further from the core you are, and the more reliant on a special relationship with a C-level leader, the more likely it is that you’ll be seen as someone who can somehow operate outside the normal rules. The more special or “chosen” you seem, the more likely it is that others in the organization will be hunting around for the kryptonite that will kill your project — or at least rooting for you to be brought down to earth.

Corporate innovation leaders, and their teams, need to move away from “Superhero Syndrome.” They need to instead approach their work like someone scouting talent for a football team, or perhaps putting together an orchestra. As an innovation leader, you need to be involved in identifying people throughout the organization that can help you achieve something great, with a diverse range of skills, knowledge, and political connections. 

Rather than recruiting wide receivers or bassoonists, you may need:

  • Colleagues in legal and compliance who can help you navigate the complexities of contracts and regulations

  • Colleagues in IT who can help set up sandboxes in which you can test new technologies

  • Colleagues in marketing or sales who can help you get feedback from customers

  • Colleagues in finance who can help reality-check financial models (and allocate resources)

  • Colleagues in business units who can provide input on what it will take to operationalize a concept and take on new offerings when they’re ready to be launched.

These people all need to understand what’s in it for them and why they should be involved. Giving people visibility and time with board members or C-suite leaders can do that — so can helping them develop new skills or capabilities. Sometimes, something as simple as a fleece or a coffee mug can make people feel like they’re part of an important movement in the organization. In normal times, traveling together to a conference or trade show — perhaps to show an early concept to a partner or retailer — can do that. Most importantly, there needs to be the possibility of chalking up a win, eventually.

Not everyone you involve will always feel like they are helping put wind in your sails. Some may point out a technical flaw, or highlight an important distribution issue. But the goal of any innovation team is to figure out as quickly and cheaply as possible if a given idea is good or bad, and then act accordingly. That’s how you achieve the optimal outcome for the organization. Make sure you have lots of ways to give people kudos and recognition, regardless of whether they helped kill a suboptimal idea or sign the first customer contract for one with huge potential.

It’s time to acknowledge that Superhero Syndrome just doesn’t fly. Cultivating great ideas, testing them, and getting them to market takes a broad collective of colleagues from around the organization — all playing different parts, but playing from the same sheet music.


(Orchestra photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash.)