If you lead or work on an innovation program within a large organization you know the thrill when corporate leadership references the value of your program. The value of their references to your efforts in the media, at leadership meetings, or even just casual conversations cannot be understated. It is exciting, empowering and honestly, just a big, fat ego boost.
As many of my readers will know, corporations tend to focus on fads, often packaged into corporate initiatives or programs, that roll in and out of favor over time. You can argue whether that is appropriate or not, and to be honest, the discussions about high-end corporate strategy are generally above my pay grade. The fact is that attention from leadership around any single initiative doesn’t last forever, and it will shift to the next bright and shiny object at some point. So how do you prepare for when this happens? (Not if…it will happen.)
Based on my experience I have prepared a list of actions that I have seen as successful, either when I have done them as part of my own program, or with other Fortune 500 programs that I advise:
The fact is that attention from leadership around any single initiative doesn’t last forever.
When attention shifts away from your program, one of the first things that will happen is that specific activities will be reviewed and considered for financial reassessment (i.e. cutting). It is easy to cut a program if the focus is on the front end of innovation, often including soft metrics such as levels of engagement, ideas generated, etc. It is much harder to do when the program is directly aligned with back end efforts that generate a financial impact to the business. Ensuring that your activities directly impact the financial performance of a business unit, or the wider organization, is a great negotiating tactic for when the accountants come calling.
As above, it is easy to cut short term, discrete innovation-focused activities. These efforts are vulnerable because of the very essence of what they are—disposable—not integrated with other efforts and often not producing valuable results. By focusing your attention on longer-term, more integrated efforts, the effort and cost of cutting back can be more difficult to achieve. Also, as an added bonus these efforts tend to generate a broader set of benefits to the organization, so are less desirable to cut. Examples of activities with a longer-term focus include the development of employee innovation networks, innovation training efforts, etc.
As attention shifts to new areas, it is valuable to make a reassessment of your idea pipeline, through the lens of leadership’s priorities. Ideas that may have worked in the past, may suddenly not be relevant to your leadership. In addition, when doing this review, be sure to consider the expected timing and impact of delivery of those ideas. It may make sense to push emphasis to more immediate ideas, as a way to demonstrate the success of your efforts. This decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, but just be sure to give all of the ideas that you are aware of a solid review.
One of the good things about innovation is that it underlies all aspects of an organization. When I ran my own innovation program and leadership started pushing another program I reached out to the leader of that new group and agreed to run a series of activities that would aligned with their efforts. Not only did this provide a visible partnership between our teams, but also extended our efforts to other initiatives, building a broader base of support. By the way, a really great opportunity here is to offer to utilize any employee innovation networks to support these new efforts. Initiatives are always starved of resources, so by offering a broad base of support they will be really grateful.
No one wants to be responsible for creating an impression that innovation isn’t important to the organization.
With a change in priorities, leadership should be keenly aware of potential perception changes that may be generated across a variety of stakeholder audiences. Those audiences can be internally (employees, management etc.) or externally focused (customers, partners, investors, media, etc.). No one wants to be responsible for creating an impression that innovation isn’t important to the organization. Accordingly, if you support activities that encompass a broad audience, as long as that effort is producing positive results, it is going to be really hard to pull back.
I often write about the value of building broad employee networks across an organization. There are other innovation networks that program leadership should also focus on at all times, but especially when attention is turning. Importantly, innovation leadership should map out formal or informal networks amongst business leadership. The point here is to confirm that leadership continues to support and buy-into your program, in a way that ensures it’s continued success.
Finally, as I have been saying, don’t get caught by surprise when that attention shifts. It is going to happen, and you have to be sensitive to the signs that changes are in the wind. I recently wrote an article about the signs that your innovation program is in trouble, which can be a proxy for signs that leadership’s focus is shifting. Be aware and realistic of your perceived value by key leadership stakeholders, and have plans in place to address any questions that may arise.
As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a sample of some thoughts based on my experience. Let me know if you have any other suggestions of approaches that innovation leaders should take?
Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led The BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).