How Innovation Leaders Can Avoid Feeling Perpetually Behind

Corporate America typically favors the near term, values the tangible, and highlights the explainable. Core functions such as sales, manufacturing, finance, and IT can quickly build cases for their continued investment because of their tactical and mostly near term focus. Innovation teams, on the other hand, have a much harder time justifying their existence – especially in seasons of cost-cutting. Corporate innovation leaders often find themselves in an unfair and near-constant cycle of having to prove value - even though they are given a typical long-term, strategic mandate.

Patience is a critical component of successful corporate innovation. However, executives under pressure may rush to start discounting anything that seems too long term, uncertain, or unconventional – placing undue burden on innovation programs, right now. As a result, innovation teams pour significant effort on non-value tasks, leaving them feeling perpetually behind.

We work extensively with innovation leaders in nearly every industry. The stress is palpable – you can feel them being pulled in multiple directions as they attempt to prioritize getting true long-term value out of innovation while also justifying their existence today. “Value” is warped into busywork. 

To avoid wasted effort, steer clear of these five culprits:

#1 — Scrambling for data

Traditional enterprises love data, and often arbitrarily assign value to data volume vs. quality. People want to see facts, numbers, and charts. Innovation work is often creative, nuanced, and iterative – crunching numbers doesn’t always make a ton of sense here, especially given the time horizons of potentially transformative innovation initiatives. If data collection is just meant to prove a point instead of meaningfully moving the ball forward, cross it off your list. 

#2 — Trying to innovate through PowerPoint

Innovation leaders present a lot. As a result of constantly having to prove their value, they are forced to run a hamster wheel of convincing, selling, and defending their work to a much higher degree than any other department. I remember one client CEO wisely halted the hustle by saying, “PowerPoints aren’t innovation. Stop it. Go build things and talk to customers.”

#3 — Too. Many. Meetings

“Head of Innovation” can also land you with the far less desirable secondary title of “Most Overbooked Calendar.” From high-level department reviews and executive meetings to very tactical “in the weeds” idea development sessions, the constant meetings are amplified by significant context switching. You’ll inevitably end up feeling scattered. Be conscious of this, and try to carve out times for true deep work – even if you have to hold them on your calendar. 

#4 — Being paranoid about having the “perfect process"

Innovation processes are a dime a dozen. You can waste so much time trying to land on the “right” one for your organization. Is it design thinking, or lean startup, or discovery-driven planning, or agile development? Many organizations come up with their own 5 P’s, or 4 I’s, or 3 D’s, etc. of innovation. A common process that works is important but don’t overcook the turkey. Decide on one, and then commit to it.

#5 — Feeling like you need to read the entire Internet

There are already more books, articles, podcasts, and webinars than one person could possibly consume. But because innovation leaders are inherently curious, they often feel a responsibility to be up-to-date on all the latest developments in their field, and with every related technology or startup that already exists or could possibly exist one day. With limited time to read or reflect, the weight of backlogged content gets heavy. Bookmark the best stuff, and surround yourself with equally curious people who can share new perspectives, ideas, and updates.

Innovation outcomes are a direct result of focused, highly concentrated work – building things, forming partnerships, reinventing business models, winning new customers, and implementing new technologies. None of the culprits noted above help you get there. Making innovation work in large organizations is often unavoidably political, but it should not require herculean efforts to justify. To get the outcomes we aspire to, we must free innovation leaders to stop the nonsense and do the work that really matters. 

How Innovation Leaders Can Avoid Feeling Perpetually Behind

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