Navigating complex organizations takes skill and savviness, or what some call office politics. It is such an important skill that world class companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson teach it to their employees and reward them for using it. We may not like it, but for good ideas and people to survive, we must build organizational savviness and influence skills.
Succeeding at innovation takes that same organizational savviness. Here are eight tips to improve your innovation savviness:
1. You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. Corporate rookies, especially newly-minted MBA’s, rush in with the goal of getting to the best answer faster than anyone else in the room. Even when you are the smartest guy (gal) in the room, you should avoid this behavior. Otherwise, you will gradually lose allies. People will stop inviting you, and you will soon become a “solo act.” Instead, work hard to offer your ideas with the intent of combining them with the best of others. Be seen as an integrator of ideas rather than competing to create the best idea.
2. Make sure your innovation efforts are seen as relevant. It’s tempting to be the first to jump on the latest fad and prove your entrepreneurial spirit. However, by doing so, you risk being seen as someone who is out of touch, too theoretical, or “chasing windmills.” You may think you have a good grasp of what’s relevant to the organization. But your views may differ dramatically from what the boss sees at her level of the organization. Instead, make sure you solicit advice about the relevance of your project. How does it link to the strategic initiatives of the firm? How would you explain your project’s importance to an outsider? Pull out if you have difficulty making this link.
3. Work only on those projects with a clear, supported mandate from senior management. While your innovation project may be relevant, that is not the same as having a mandate. Many initiatives and ideas may be relevant to the organization’s success, but only a limited number get the necessary dollars and headcount to be successful. Link yourself only to projects that have management’s support. Avoid being sucked into every initiative that comes your way. If you are talented, people will want your time and energy on their projects. Be sure to “limit rather than dilute” – it is better to succeed on a few projects than deliver marginal results on many.
4. Timing is everything. Every project or initiative follows a predictable life cycle: intro, growth, maturity, and decline. Be sure to join innovation initiatives early in their life cycle, and get out when they mature. Some make the mistake of hanging on too long, after the program has lost its “oomph.” Either they didn’t see the decline coming, or they became too comfortable to change. Either way, they are doomed if they stay with an innovation program to its bitter end.
5. Learn to recognize…and deal with…sabotage by others. People treat ideas differently depending on the source of the idea. If an idea comes from an internal peer rival, people tend to see it as tainted. They sabotage it because it’s not theirs. If the same idea had come from outside the firm (from a competitor or consultant), people overvalue it. They see it as tempting. You should expect to see this behavior and have ways to neutralize its effect. One way is to not associate ideas with a specific person, especially you. Contrary to popular wisdom, avoid giving attribution the person who created the idea. This makes sure the idea is stripped of any associations related to the inventor. The idea now has its best chance of survival.
6. Savviness is not the same as manipulation. There is an old saying in the corporate world: “Don’t make enemies of your peers. If you do, you won’t need more enemies – they can ruin just fine.” When navigating the innovation waters, don’t see it as a political chess game where you have to manipulate others to get what you want. Savvy innovators have a high level of political astuteness and possess strategies and skills for ethically navigating the corporate terrain to gain “organizational influence and impact with integrity.”
7. “It’s not what you don’t know that will kill you. It’s what you know that ain’t really so.” Will Rogers is credited with this savvy quote. That wisdom holds true today for innovation. People let their current knowledge about an issue blind them to other facts that may contradict their beliefs. Holding onto a belief that you are certain is true…only to find out later that it isn’t…will cause others to question your flexibility and judgment. Learn to recognize this blind spot (called Confirmation Bias), and seek ways to weigh data equally, including data contrary to your point of view.
8. Treat yourself to continuous development and improvement. The biggest mistake corporate innovators make is they stop developing themselves. Your first priority is to assure your relevance to the organization, and you can do that only if you take the time to learn new skills and update old ones. If you are doing today’s job on twenty year old skills, you have become the proverbial “dead man walking.” Instead, you should make every year count – take time to do something, anything that develops and improves your innovation abilities.