Innovation Journey Series Month 0 - Month 3: Purpose

This is part of a 4 part series called The Innovation Journey.

Month 0 - Month 3: Purpose

The start of any new adventure is exciting. The slate is clean, the possibilities are endless, and a story is waiting to be told. The launch of an innovation program at your company is equally exciting.

As an innovation leader, you've been given a mandate to make a sustained, transformative impact. You have a plan, and everyone is on board...right?

You’ll undoubtedly go in with support from some influential people. Your CEO must be committed and supportive out of the gate - lack of support from key leadership is the death knell of all innovation programs. But you’ll need to get others on board as well. There will definitely be people who cringe at the word “innovation”. They will see it as aspirational, “rah rah” jabbing that is not likely to translate into real, commercial success. They will undermine you directly, or indirectly with colleagues - even if the CEO is all-in. It’s human nature to reject things we don’t understand, so your job as an innovation leader in the first three months is to create a powerful purpose that prevents this from happening, aligns your top leaders, and inspires support and commitment.

You likely got this innovation job because you know how to get things done. As much as you may be tempted to go in with guns blazing and establish a process, create a portfolio of opportunities, invest in new technologies, and get right to work, that is not your primary role at the start. In fact, innovation will be a whopping failure if you focus too much on production out of the gate. You must define your purpose first.

Give people a clear purpose to rally behind.

If someone asked you, “Give me an idea, any idea!” you would be stumped. It is hard to come up with a solution with absolutely no context. But if someone said, “Give me an idea that would make riding in the car with friends more fun, using your phone,” you’d probably be able to come up with a solution at least worth considering.

No one knows what “be more innovative” means. But too often, well-intentioned senior leaders stand on stages and request that of their employees. A vague call for innovation produces more confusion than creativity. People need someone to define the point - what are they innovating around, for whom, and where? This is your job as the innovation leader. Constraints and focus produce output, especially as it relates to innovation.

Identify specific goals for innovation.

Here are some questions that will help you clarify specific objectives for your innovation program:

  • Are you looking to grow revenue or drive cost savings through innovation?
  • Are you hoping to expand into new markets, or defend your core business?
  • How will the innovation team work with the business units / organizations?
  • What are the most exciting opportunities for your company and in your industry?
  • What are the scariest threats to your company and/or industry?
  • What new technologies are most important to the future of your business?
  • What capabilities will the innovation team help establish and grow within the business?

Solid, crisp answers to these questions help define a compelling vision, creating a catalytic difference to what can be achieved on a company’s innovation journey.

Learn from a true success story.

In 2010, a large downstream oil and gas company defined an innovation vision beautifully when its CEO made a compelling provocation to his team:“How do we make money when cars no longer need lubricants?” After the executive team grappled with this alarming question, the company’s innovation leader went through the list above, defined clear answers, and rallied the exec team around a multi-year effort to push the company’s strategy well beyond its core and into areas of future growth. This bold vision for the future cascaded into an organizational belief that innovation is a priority - and a possibility - and the portfolio became burgeoning with opportunity.

Success will be measured against your defined purpose.

A clearly defined vision, anchored in your company’s strategy, is the first and most critical step in setting up your innovation program. It is your only job in the first three months as the innovation leader. When your senior leadership team asks, “Is it working? Is it worth it?” they will judge you for the clarity and compelling nature of the defined purpose. It sets the context for your innovation strategy, provides support for those tasked to lead it, and propels employees into action. It motivates people to stretch their imagination beyond their convention. And it’s your first step toward success.

Innovation Journey Series Month 0 - Month 3: Purpose

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