Our clients often tell us that lack of management support for innovation is one of their biggest challenges. And lots of studies and surveys on innovation usually list lack of management support as one of the top obstacles to innovation. But – executives also tell us that innovation is one of their top priorities. So what gives? Support for innovation is loudly declared in nearly all corporate mission statements and in guiding principles. Is it just a matter of walking the talk? We think it is … and in this case there are concrete actions that executives can take to walk the talk.
1. Get in the kitchen and help bake the innovation.
Spend some “hands on” time with innovation teams. Work with them as they wrestle through some of the thorny details of getting their innovation to see the light of day. Become a mentor to an innovation team or an innovator. Facilitate connections between people and business units so that innovations can proceed more smoothly. Get to know your innovators. This makes management’s commitment to innovation tangible and visible. It’s also a great opportunity for leaders to learn more about the challenges that innovators are facing.
2. Make sure people are clear about what kind of innovations the company needs.
Innovation is a fuzzy abstract concept for many. Make it real and make it tangible. Promote examples of innovation within your company and outside your company. Be very clear and transparent on the criteria used for funding innovations. Use “softer” criteria at the front of the funnel (Is a customer need clearly addressed? What evidence do we have that the market is large?) and more precise economic criteria as the idea moves through the funnel. Often, when the criteria aren’t clear, employees will imagine a secret political process that decides on innovations – and this leads quickly to disengagement.
3. People want to participate, but often they don’t know how.
Adopt a common language and a common system of innovation and make it clear how everyone can participate. Give people the tools they need to develop new insights and to generate new ideas.
4. Put innovation on the agenda – all agendas.
Make time for innovation by always including innovation as a topic at all management meetings. This can be as formal as reviewing innovation projects or pilots or regularly reviewing the innovation portfolio. Also, this is a great time to assess your progress on embedding innovation – Do we have the right people involved? Is the rate of innovation skill building on track? Make time at town hall meetings to talk about innovations – not just the successes but also the “good tries.” Call out innovation heroes and let them serve as examples.
5. Make innovation-friendly decisions.
Most companies that are struggling with innovation let the day-to-day business needs crowd out innovation. Make it a point to take some innovation friendly decisions (however small) regularly and communicate them. One way to do this is to set up an “innovation fund,” separate from departmental budgets, that innovators can tap as seed money for innovations. Innovators will be inspired to learn that innovation can thrive under the weight of day-to-day business priorities.
6. Walk AND talk.
Management actions supporting innovation are critical, but it is also important to establish an innovation communication channel. Communicate the innovation vision and aspiration – set a meaningful challenge for innovators. “Helping people with chronic disease lead a normal life” is more inspiring to employees than “Increase revenues and margins by 20%.” Communicate the examples of on-going innovations, successful innovations, and “good tries.” Make the communication personal with innovator and management interviews.
Being successful at innovation requires more than platitudes and buzzwords. Management has to make it real through their actions, behaviors and decisions.