Innovators have a rough road ahead. Despite the mandate for growth and the pleas for a more innovative culture, innovators face a lot of challenges from both inside and outside the organization. That was the major theme we explored this week in “Innovation and Design Thinking.”
One of our 2200 students, Francisco Javier Zambonino Vázquez, led off the discussion with this comment:

“In my opinion the lack of real commitment is the most important barrier to deal with when innovating. I think that continuous communication with management line is vital for ensuring they are in the loop. Skepticism must be kept under control so that it does not spoil our bet for innovation.”

What happens to an innovation pipeline without a strong commitment from senior management? It dries up because it lacks the resources in both dollars and people. But why does this happen, especially when every senior leader knows that innovation is the only true source of long term sustainable growth?

There are several reasons. First, senior leaders face difficult choices in terms of where to invest for growth. Every company has a portfolio of choices whether it be developing new products, spending on new marketing programs, or acquiring growth from outside the company. An innovation, by design, is meant to bring discomfort into the system, as one of our practitioners, Cindy Tripp, pointed out. “The more breakthrough, out-of-the-norm the idea is, the more you get things flying up in your face.” As student, Kari Barnett, put it:

“Innovators can face skepticism from their organization if they are looking into ideas outside the typical realm of the company. The organization may not see how the new ideas fit into the company’s product or service listings or the idea may be so far out there that they cannot see how it will be profitable.”

Sometimes, leaders are too far removed from innovation projects. As Cindy noted, the best leaders spend more time with innovation teams than current product teams. In some cases, leaders lack the experience of being on an innovation project. As practitioner, Doug Ladd, explained, these leaders may have an unrealistic expectation of what it takes to drive a new concept to market.
What can innovators do? We advise the following.

  • Build a pipeline of future concepts. Keep ideating new concepts and adding them to the very front end of the portfolio. This increases the appeal of your overall pipeline compared to other pipelines. The key is to look more attractive to senior leaders to earn a fair share of the investment dollars.
  • Communicate the value. As student, Ranya Badawi, said, “Communication is key and I believe it is important to have management on board during the initial phases of the design process (especially the ideation phase). Management will then see the true value of innovation and design thinking.”
  • Lead by example. As Jim Tappel explained, “Managers need to demonstrate as well as articulate behavior that exemplifies risk taking and doing the right thing.  I believe, due to cultural and systematic momentum organizations possess, design and innovation practice is often farmed out to consultants who can be ‘bold and courageous without the need to be politically correct.  Slowly, over time, organizations can change, but only when they want and need to.  And for some firms, this comes too late.”

Be bold and courageous. Innovation is a rough road, filled with challenges, failures and obstacles. So we will leave you with a question for a future discussion. What exactly draws you toward this path?