Embrace or Ignore Innovation Stakeholders: A Perspective on Corporate Antibodies

The accepted approach for Corporate Innovation leaders is to secure buy-in from all stakeholders, in order to secure success. This article (first in a series) argues against this approach, aiming for a more tempered effort, that seeks enough buy-in to push forward.

I recently re-read the 2012 HBR article titled “Get the Corporate Antibodies on Your Side” by Mitra Best. The article’s underlying theme is that you need to run an inclusive approach to innovation activities, generating buy-in and support from all of your stakeholders (or potential antibodies), in order to drive the success of your efforts.

Well, I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and frankly, I am not sure if I agree.

Many innovation leaders that I work with have whole-heartedly adopted the orthodoxy outlined by Mitra. And why not? On the surface the message makes sense: Secure stakeholder agreement upfront so that you can’t be undermined at a later date. Unfortunately in my experience, the practical nature of working in large organizations–developing and leading effective Innovation Programs that seek to improve the direction of an organization—just doesn’t support this approach.

 “No” is often the easiest answer, with few negative consequences.

Before proceeding, it may help to consider the context of most organizations that I work with (yours may be different). Corporate Innovation Programs are often established to initially create innovative activities and channels, then build business value (through new idea execution), and eventually enhance a culture of innovation.

Within these organizations the decision processes and culture are often driven by the corporate antibodies that undermine new thinking. In these environments saying “No” is often the easiest answer, with few negative consequences. These antibodies are most vocal in heavily regulated industries, where the mere mention of risk profiles or regulatory oversight is a free pass to kill new thinking. The result of this is decreased marketplace differentiation, margin pressure and reduced employee engagement or recruitment effectiveness. Interestingly, these organizations are also the ones who have invested most heavily in their innovation efforts over the past few years, often as a counterbalance to the pervasive culture of risk aversion and resulting lack of new products or services.

Within these businesses Innovation Program teams are often comparatively small, have expansive objectives, which they support through a range of activities. As a result of these efforts, they have a really broad range of stakeholders (potential antibodies), with a variety of interests and agendas. In this environment, it is impossible to get all stakeholders onside to your thinking, especially when starting out.

Too often I have spent valuable weeks trying to win over stakeholders who didn’t show much interest in my efforts, in order to get full buy-in.

Too often I have spent valuable weeks trying to win over stakeholders who didn’t show much interest in my efforts, in order to get full buy-in. At best it is a waste of effort, which I, or my team, could hardly afford. At worst, it allows your message and credibility to be undermined.

So that begs the question: How do you move activities forward, where you do require stakeholder support (and want to avoid antibodies)?

Like any good program manager, when starting a new project I identify associated stakeholder groups and develop messaging to either enhance their support or limit their concerns. What is important to note is that large businesses stakeholders are generally represented by groups rather than individuals. So I recommend extending the stakeholder mapping process to identify individuals that will be most inclined to support your efforts going forward within those broader groups. This decision could be based on personal past experience, feedback from peers / other stakeholders, or an assessment of their support of similar efforts in the past. The reason to reach out to them first is to help refine your messaging, and also secure support from those most likely to support your thinking.

The next step is to communicate more broadly with stakeholders who may not be as supportive. As part of this process it is important to quickly assess if each individual or group is going to be a Backer, Blocker or Neutral. In addition, for all stakeholders, you need to determine the power of their opinion, based on factors such as their level of interest (how important is this issue to them), position within the group (how much influence do they hold), conviction of belief (can their thinking be swayed), and cultural factors (does that stakeholder group tend to operate as a block or independently). It is important to pay special attention if they are going to be a Blocker, as they may push back heavily on your efforts. If they are vocal and central to your efforts, then you are going to have to work on them more (potentially using your supporters).

When working through this approach you need to determine at what point you have enough stakeholder buy in, in order to move forward. This is an issue that needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis and regularly reassessed. Of course, don’t forget to account for concerns expressed around your approach by stakeholders, where reasonable, and adjust your efforts as necessary. At the very least you should aim to secure support from at least one active, senior individual from each stakeholder group.

Keep in mind with this approach it is important to be attuned to the overall political and cultural influences within an organization. I once worked for an organization that was incredibly collaborative, and any hint of dissent would kill a project, so this approach would have not worked.

That said, I firmly believe that as an innovation leader you need to maintain momentum, often with limited resources. The above outlined approach works against the “fully inclusive” method outlined by Mitra, but works to encourage the pace of new activity development.

I have a template that my company (Culturevate) makes available on our Innovation Portal/Toolbox titled Stakeholder Identification that guides users through this approach, so reach out to me directly for a copy.

Stay tuned for my next article article addressing innovation stakeholders!

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author


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).

Photo: digital illustration antibodies from Shutterstock.com

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