You’ve gotten the call or you’ve raised your hand to lead a new innovation initiative. Welcome to the jungle. It’s exciting, rewarding and fraught with challenges.
Let’s set you up for success: here are the five most common missteps I’ve observed in my years helping corporations turn abstract strategies and ideas into action-based innovation. Avoid these if you want to stand a chance at delivering what leadership and the business need.
You’re thinking too big
Recognize that although leadership is saying something that sounds like “save us from disruption,” “create the next big thing,” or “build startup ideas,” what the business really needs is something manageable. Don’t fall into the trap of doing what you hear and not doing what the company can actually stomach.
If your business can’t nurture (much less operationalize) Horizon 3 ideas — ideas, research projects or pilots that don’t meet immediate business objectives or needs — don’t waste time building them. Instead, think big about starting small — make the project actionable, get into the market faster, and get traction earlier. That’s the real path to “breakthrough” innovations.
A good place to start: interview leadership. Ask them about the last great innovative idea they’ve seen the company execute. What data are they using to determine that? Most likely it’s not something far from the current business model (that’s important). How can you use that example to build a case and a blueprint for your initiative? “Let’s do that again, but this time, faster, with less money, or with a new model.”
You’re working in a vacuum
You’ve created a team in another city or far from the mothership because you are worried the core business will distract them. More likely, the core business will just ignore you, especially when you show up with a new idea you want them to divert resources to.
This is also a missed opportunity to tap into the deep domain expertise of the entire company. Can you find ways to engage and invite people in? An easy place to start is to create an open and transparent communication channel — people want to know what’s going on and how they can take part. The last thing you want to become is a top-secret, elite team. That’s a hostile situation, and you’ll likely lose.
Find ways to engage, tap into institutional knowledge, empower intrapreneurs and make them the heroes. Some ideas: host internal innovation bootcamps or hackathons, create opportunities for your colleagues to provide expert knowledge or input, or host lunch and learns that are a small lift but go a long way to give people a peek into your objectives.
Also extend your footprint externally — engage with startups, entrepreneurs, universities and other experts who can further expand your thinking. Sponsor an external event and make sure some people from your company actually go and interact with the community, host an offsite in an incubator, and court startups from your local community working to solve business-critical issues.
You’re not measuring anything — or the wrong things
It’s common when leading a new innovation initiative to have less direction — it’s a sign of trust from the business leaders. It’s also a sign that this stuff is hard and no one really knows what to do. When I was in this situation myself, one of my objectives was to train people internally on new innovation methods.
I measured how many people I trained. It was easy and visible, but it was a “vanity metric.” It didn’t say anything about the impact I was making.
Knowing what you need to measure will drive the design of your solution. For example, try measuring speed. If you know how fast you could get to market with a new product, how might that change your approach? If it was your own company and you had resources, would you build it yourself, partner or buy it?
In many cases, innovation outposts are a great example of strategies with the wrong metrics or no metrics at all. Make yours the exception to the rule.
You’re not telling a good story
If you don’t communicate in terms that people understand, they’ll reject you or ignore you. Test assumptions, probe for leadership’s worries and objectives, interview colleagues and use the language they use.
If you’re making progress, talk about it — host town hall meetings, create communication channels or use existing ones to share stories. Make the communication impactful by creating a narrative driven by someone within the company and the leaders who have enabled the work. Leading with the people behind the work is more compelling than leading with the work itself. Humanize what you’re doing to support individuals and create goodwill, both vital to the long-term impact of your initiative.
You’re not learning as you go
I’ve seen teams invest heavily and commit to a path without giving themselves the chance to evolve the plan. This is a challenge — leadership wants to see results or the budget goes away. How can you devise a plan that doesn’t cost much but starts to chip away at the goal?
Start small and deliver tangible results where you know you can, but keep your eye on the objective and don’t create theater without substance. Know what you’re trying to deliver, experiment to determine if your assumptions are true or false, and evolve as needed.
Read the rest of the Hacking the Enterprise series here
Carie Davis is a former Coca-Cola Global Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. She started Your Ideas Are Terrible and The Enterprise Growth Institute and serves as Program Director of the BridgeCommunity. She works with global companies to implement tools & systems for a steady flow of validated ideas.