On the surface, innovation is an incredibly sexy thing. The word itself is hard to define, and that makes it exciting. Definitions often include words like “new” and “change,” leading a lot of people to want to be associated with innovation. I want to do “new” things. I want to be an agent of change. Who wants to be an old school, “keep things the way they are” agent?
There’s only one way to get from the old to the new — transformation. Innovators take old organizations and make them new again. Do you have an old, tired, “pay once” business model? Let’s make it a new, fresh, “subscription fee” business model! Or better yet, let’s make it a “monetize data” business model! And let’s top it all off with hashtags. #Innovation #Transformers #InnovatorsWhoTransformThingsAreVerySexy
It feels like every day, a new book comes out in which the author proclaims to have figured out something new about innovation. Pretty much every book title includes words like “disruption” and “future” and “breakthrough.” Many of them promise to help slow, traditional companies act like “FAANG,” or Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. (Although Google is now Alphabet, so would it be “FAANA”?) Who wouldn’t want to help their old company become more like one of those? Or even have their names uttered in the same breath as the FAANA founders?
No one has ever said: “Nope, I’m good. I don’t need more innovation,” which also means it’s always in high demand. So, everyone wants more of it.
When innovators do succeed — when they see the things that no one else does, and build things that no one else can, and blow everyone’s minds in the process — they will have done it against incalculable odds.
But innovation is also incredibly hard to do well — particularly if you’re trying to do something really big and novel (like raising a unicorn) rather than something small and incremental (like making a red thing green). By definition, if you are in the business of changing things, you are going to butt heads with those “keep things the way they are” forces. And those forces are strong. We’ve been told they’re “antibodies.” They fight to win, and they usually do.
So, while pretty much everyone wants to be known as an innovator, innovators know that very few of their ilk actually succeed. When innovators do succeed — when they see the things that no one else does, and build things that no one else can, and blow everyone’s minds in the process — they will have done it against incalculable odds. They will have changed the world (and made obscene amounts of money doing it). Perhaps the world — and books, headlines, and other innovators — will only need to refer to them by their last names like Jobs, Musk, and Bezos. From that perspective, a career in innovation seems great.
In reality, innovation looks completely different below the surface. It’s like a movie set that looks stunning on-camera, but relies on rough plywood sheets and two-by-fours to do all the work behind the scenes. There’s the shiny “flash” that everyone sees and expects, but rarely are there substantive results and returns behind the scenes. But that’s often okay, because no one really expects an innovation ROI. Until they do. And then innovation leaders get fired.
Here’s the crucial thing to consider: In the vast majority of companies, innovation expectations are sky high, but very few CxOs are willing to do the very hard “top-down” work necessary in order to create conditions conducive to any sort of innovation ROI. There’s a ton of aspiration and not a lot of perspiration.
There are also few generally accepted metrics with which to measure innovation ROI. As a result, many leaders end up answering the key “Are we getting enough return on our innovation investment?” question by falling back on “Well, does it look and feel like we’re getting enough return?” answers.
It’s therefore incumbent on innovation leaders to set themselves and their teams up for success from the very beginning. There can’t be internal innovation initiative ambiguity. There must be alignment on what basic words and terms mean. If there are 10 leaders in a room and each leader defines innovation differently, the path forward will be very bumpy.
[Innovation] is like a movie set that looks stunning on-camera, but relies on rough plywood sheets and two-by-fours to do all the work behind the scenes.
There must also be alignment on the reasons why an organization “needs more innovation.” What needs are an innovation initiative seeking to address, and for whom? If an organization’s leaders can’t carefully define those needs and what success looks like, it’s impossible for an innovation leader to craft the right solution.
So, what should innovation leaders be doing to pave the way for success?
First and foremost, they should be putting all of their human-centered business design techniques to work, incubating their own initiatives as they would new and potentially risky products or ventures.
They should map their internal stakeholder customers and look at the world (and their individual sets of needs) through their eyes. They should develop and pitch “initiative MVP” options — perhaps a pilot partnership with a startup, or a quick bit of market research and solution prototyping — that would address those needs. And if they’ve calibrated everything correctly in an “under-promise and over-deliver” way, it should be fairly easy to execute the MVP in a way that makes those key stakeholders happy.
Successful innovation leaders have an instinctive understanding of the innovation movie set. They know how easy it is for individuals and organizations to get carried away by the outwardly flashy nature of innovation. They also know that getting put in charge of innovation is just like arriving in Hollywood and landing an important supporting role. Nailing the part, and making the lead actors look good while doing it, may not be glamorous, but it is ultimately the only way to become a star. Jobs and Musk and Bezos became stars because they delivered on promises. Innovation isn’t sexy. Results are sexy.
This piece appears in the Fall 2020 issue of IL’s magazine,which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.