The 20 Mistakes New Corporate Innovators Make

October 10, 2019

Being tapped to lead innovation inside a big, established organization is a tough assignment. That’s true regardless of your level or department—whether you’re a newly-minted Director of R&D, Head of Transformation, or Chief Digital Officer.

In June, we published an online list of nine of the most common mistakes that we see new corporate innovators make, and asked readers to share others that they’d observed—or perhaps made themselves. Numbers 10-20 on the list below were contributed by readers. 

1. Assume that because someone in the C-suite gave you the job, you don’t need to forge alliances with colleagues up and down the org chart.

2. Run a high-profile innovation event right away, like a hackathon, “Shark Tank” pitch competition, or idea challenge. This often creates a level of excitement (and high expectations) that can’t be sustained.

3. Put the leadership team on a plane to Silicon Valley to visit startup accelerators, incubators, venture capital firms, and the Google-plex. The innovation practices of the startup world, or companies with $100+ billion of cash on their balance sheet (like Google), are not readily applicable in your sprawling, risk-averse, decades-old organization.

4. Start collecting ideas from employees using an online idea platform—with no idea what you’re going to do with them afterward.

5. Avoiding any metrics that show how you’re creating business value. Even though it may be hard to assemble a metrics dashboard in the first few months, you need to prepare for the moment when someone says, “What exactly is that innovation group contributing?” (Usually around the 18-month mark.)

6. Assemble a team with no “new blood”—just company veterans and insiders.

7. Neglect to develop and execute an internal communications strategy that explains what the innovation team is doing; how it can help other parts of the business; and how people can get involved.

8. Biting off more than they can chew: hosting a speaker series; sponsoring a startup accelerator; conducting design thinking workshops; forging university partnerships; trying to do Horizon 1, 2, and 3 innovation projects; etc.

9. Spend the first year taking meetings with everyone, up and down the org chart, trying to convert them all into innovation supporters. (Yes, this conflicts with Item #1.) Not everyone wants to see you succeed, and substantive innovation often conflicts with long-established (and profitable) elements of the business.

10. Neglect to make your process and pipeline visible. While different innovations require different approaches, and lots of innovation is confidential, appropriate transparency helps the organization absorb a new innovation team more readily. (Rachel Antalek, Antalek Strategic Innovation Partners)

11. Go outside without solid anchoring inside—i.e., emphasizing open innovation over internal innovation programs. (Eugene Ivanov, Mozilla)

12. Encourage employees to “take risks” and “be like an entrepreneur” in their existing roles (or as additional scope to their existing role), without potential upside or protection from downsides. (Hunter Ashmore, IndustrialML)

13. Over-invest in a new space. A great lab space can be an accelerator, helping attract the right talent and partners and fostering better collaboration, but if all you can show after a year in the role is an expensive real estate expansion project, people will question your priorities no matter how cool the environment turns out. (Kevin Bolen, KPMG)

14. Hire the wrong people to lead the innovation. Innovation is driven by a visionary entrepreneur. It is not a team sport, not a collection of equals, not a committee. Successful startups are not a group of smart people sitting around brainstorming ideas. They are led by an entrepreneur with a vision for how to solve an unmet need. (Don Dodge, formerly of Google)

15. Not having clearly-aligned strategic domains to be used as a filter for incoming ideas, or as a guide for dedicated, exploratory discovery work. Have these domains defined or at least vetted by the C-level… (Kevin de Caluwé, CREAX)

16. Do not engage customers, [or] build a revenue model and/or profitability contribution around an innovation portfolio. Whether your innovation objectives are 1 percent or 99 percent supporting the economics, you need to be additive to the business. (Stephen Goodman, MIT)

17. Underestimate the people side of a change. Changes come to life through the work and behaviors of individuals. (Eva Gaskova, formerly at MSD)

18. Lack of clear definitions of success for projects/products/efforts in the innovation portfolio, to enable redirection of resources from failures to those with strategic potential. (Bryan Parsons, EY)

19. Not taking advantage of how much can be learned from other sectors, other kinds of companies, others’ failures.  Innovation is fueled by intellectual curiosity and a constant desire to learn. (Amy Radin, Author, The Change Maker’s Playbook)

20. Start with a technology in search of a problem, rather than vice versa. (David Bilas, Progressive Insurance)