This is part of a 4 part series called The Innovation Journey.
Month 6 - 12: Pipeline
In your first six months leading innovation at your company, you will have set a compelling vision, gotten executive support, and involved the most motivated people at your company. This is a fantastic start. Now, don’t become one of the many innovation leaders that bask too long in this accomplishment and fail to get to the next most critical step in making innovation work fast enough: filling your pipeline with projects.
Getting people excited about opportunities and unleashing a fresh wave of creativity naturally produces an optimistic, positive vibe in the organization. It’s like the first 100 yards of a marathon when your blood is pumping and adrenaline is high. But just as a runner hits a certain point where their legs start to burn, their lungs start to tighten, and they start to wonder “why did I decide to do this?” you’ll hit that same point in your innovation program. Everyone will be excited out of the gate, but will likely encounter a moment of hesitation when the work becomes real.
Paul Graham, well-known venture capitalist and founder of Y Combinator, drew a picture of the emotional journey of a founder called The Startup Curve. In it, he explains that every founder hits a point where the novelty of starting a new venture wears off and they encounter the real work of building a company. He lovingly calls this season the “trough of sorrow” – where the progress feels slow and full of setbacks. This emotional journey applies to anyone starting something new – including corporate innovation leaders. Adapting Graham’s startup curve for the corporate innovator would look something like this (the white line represents the emotional highs and lows):
The elation of launch will inevitably be short-lived. When the work begins, you’re at risk of feeling overwhelmed, defeated, and desperate, while still facing a long way to go and new questions from executives like: “So, when will we have revenue?”
At Clareo (and now Forest), we’ve worked alongside leaders on this journey many times in a plethora of industries, helping them set up their innovation programs so they’re able to answer these questions, keep momentum and gain traction through the highs and lows.
Here are five lessons to apply in this critical 6-month time period in the life of your innovation program:
1 - Expect and Embrace the Trough
As the saying goes,“Every overnight success is ten years in the making.” The journey to results won’t take you ten years, but it will almost certainly be full of significant ups and downs. Don’t be surprised by roadblocks, temporary enemies, or frustrating conversations. Expect them, and then accept and embrace them. Making a sustained, transformational impact at your company requires persistence through the long slog of the corporate innovator’s own trough of sorrow. But, if you stick with it, you’ll be able to rejoice in the future.
2 - Connect Inventors with Builders
Companies often expect employees to exhibit Elon Musk-like capabilities to identify a problem, design a solution, validate its efficacy, recruit a team, build a business plan, and then deliver objective value. We have consistently found that most people will not be able to or interested in carrying their idea from start to finish. Therefore, your job as an innovation leader is to proactively connect inventors (typically 10% of people) with builders (everyone else). Failing to do this will result in a graveyard of stalled projects.
3 - Build Diverse, Interesting Portfolios
You’ve set the appropriate boundaries for innovation through your articulated vision. Now, place as many bets as possible, spread out into every facet of that vision. You’ll naturally be drawn to technologies, trends, businesses that are inherently interesting to you and appeal to your capabilities as an innovator. Be careful of this trap – it can lead you to blindly overcommit and converge too soon. Your goal is to create as many options as possible. Doing this will help you mitigate risk and build capabilities more quickly.
4 - Advocate Like It’s Your Job
You are now a superfan of anyone participating in your innovation program. You need to encourage, support, and validate their work (which is typically outside their normal responsibilities). That’s not enough, though. You are their ultimate advocate, telling their story, breaking down roadblocks, securing resources when they need them, and being their ultimate connector. Every day you need to wake up and say to yourself: “What can I do to help progress the projects in our innovation pipeline?”
5 - Marry the Vision, Date the Strategy
There is a 100% chance that at least one detail of your innovation strategy is wrong when you launch. You can’t predict the future, and you are not all-knowing. So don’t be concerned if the strategy to accomplish your vision needs to change dramatically over the course of your journey. But while adapting your strategy is acceptable and often necessary, vacillating between visions is not. You must marry your innovation vision and stick to it at all costs – you can just date the strategy and tactics to get there, playing the field a little. Set an expectation of iteration from the very start. Change, adaptation, and evolution are part of the process and necessary for successful innovation.
A Full Pipeline is Your Holy Grail
A clear, compelling vision that employees are participating in is a key starting point. But in months 6 - 12 of your innovation journey, you will be judged primarily by the health and breadth of the projects in the pipeline. People need to feel that there are opportunities that will deliver real value, quickly. Use the five lessons above, and you’ll be able to claim a full pipeline – and you might even find this gritty “trough” of your journey enjoyable.