The Demise of an Innovation Team: 5 Warning Signs

February 4, 2022

Everything always looks clearer in hindsight. I say this because it’s pretty clear to me now, with some distance, that our innovation team had hit a brick wall. All the signs were pointing in that direction. These signs appeared one by one over the course of the past two years. However, our whole team was still quite surprised when we were eliminated. Everyone knew that being innovative, in our competitive industry, was more important than ever. 

So, what are those red flag warning signs an innovation team is losing traction? Here are a few insights from my experience.

  1. The focus changed. The leaders re-focused on near-term priorities, particularly as a result of the pandemic and other economic and environmental factors. While innovation was important, in light of other imperatives, it became a much lower priority.  
  2. Innovation funding was reduced and then eliminated. Competing business needs necessitated a shift in funding priorities. The innovation fund was redirected to other areas of the business to meet shorter-term growth needs.  
  3. There was no innovation champion. This one is key. We lacked an innovation champion at the senior leader level who could advocate for focusing on the future, demonstrate the value the innovation team was delivering, and share our success stories. 
  4. We lacked a clear mission. The innovation team was working without a clearly-articulated charter — goals, KPIs, measures – to be able to communicate and obtain feedback and direction. It felt like we were working within a vacuum or echo chamber. 
  5. Limited visibility. The innovation team was positioned under the Chief Information Officer. This resulted in a lack of visibility to the businesses, as well as the perception our function was focused solely on emerging technology (which was not the case).  

That gradual shift was what made these warnings signs harder to see at the time…

These warnings signs did not appear all at once. It was a slow and a gradual shift in priorities and resources over time, especially as a result of a change in leadership roles. That gradual shift was what made these warnings signs harder to see at the time — but easier to understand in hindsight. 

If you are seeing some of these warning signs, what can you do about it?

  • Find quick wins and build momentum. Deliver quick wins aligned to senior leaders’ priorities, and communicate the heck out of those wins. Storytelling is an essential skill. Don’t overlook the need for a steady cadence of internal marketing. Show, don’t tell, by inviting your executives to learn about and experience what you are doing.  
  • Regularly communicate with your aligned executive. This sounds obvious, but we had stopped meeting with our senior leader about a year-and-a-half prior to our elimination. There was no particular reason, other than the pandemic descended, and we thought he needed to focus his attention on other priorities. If your leader can’t meet, send executive summaries to keep him or her informed and engaged. 
  • Ensure you have at least one champion at the executive level. Ideally, this is someone who really cares about innovation in their DNA, and is willing to take risks to support your vision and focus on the future. It is fundamental to success. 
  • Establish clear goals and success measures, even for innovation activities which are harder to measure — like culture or capability building. If you don’t achieve buy-in, establish goals and metrics starting at a team level. Communicate your metrics and results widely, to influence colleagues up and down the org chart. 
  • Position the team for sustained success. While the positioning under the CIO made sense when our team was formed, due to shifting priorities and resources, at some point that structure no longer enabled our success. If you can influence your positioning in the organization, align your as closely as possible to your champion and CEO. You will need their support to secure funding on a recurring basis no matter what market conditions arise. 

In organizations where innovation is not yet baked into the DNA, you need to be spending time on a regular basis to deliver and communicate value upward and outward. When you see signs that initiatives are getting delayed, needed resources are in limbo, or a key leader is distracted, my recommendation is to take action quickly, rather than waiting to see how things transpire. 

Your organization needs your innovation team — but sometimes you need to remind them of that.

The author of this article requested anonymity, but has worked to support innovation and technology initiatives in large organizations for more than a decade. (Featured image by Razlan Hanafiah on Unsplash.)