I recently participated in a panel session as part of a great conference organised by the Innov8rs group (thanks Hans!), with an amazing set of innovation leaders, including Gina O’Connor, John Metselaar, and Andrea Kates.
During the one-hour session we covered a wide range of innovation topics, where we uncovered some divergent perspectives, which I’ve been reflecting on since. You know how these things go; in the moment you are following the flow, but then afterwards you come up with some additional thoughts and zingers. So I’ve outlined some of my additional thoughts below:
Coming right out of the gate we debated how to best define innovation within a corporate environment. I pushed for a broad definition, to capture the widest net of activity and support going forward. My panel colleagues raised the point that a more focused set of objectives and points of impact for innovation professionals makes more sense.
Sure, owning a ‘too broad’ innovation agenda is a killer, but it’s also important for innovation leaders to not ‘own’ innovation. Rather, we should support, influence and track a wide range of innovative actions across an organisation. But in terms of what we as innovation leaders will own, absolutely, we should be targeted and impactful.
Innovation Focus / Impact
The panel then focused on innovation leaders pushing Horizon 3 product development, cultural change, and ideation efforts (amongst others). My concern with these is that innovation professionals have traditionally played a heavy role in initiating these efforts, and the result is that programs are being trashed / retooled every two to three years, in part based on a consistent lack of demonstrated business impact being achieved.
If anything, the last two years have demonstrated a shift away from longer-term planning to addressing more immediate, tangible, trackable needs. In my opinion, taking ownership of developing far-off products and activities that don’t drive short-term impacts (especially now) will only end in more trashed innovation programs and leaders looking for new gigs.
In response, I believe we need to more actively address immediate strategic disruptions faced by organisations, such as hybrid working needs, supply chain challenges, shifting consumer demand and expectations, increased focus on ESG requirements, etc. Innovation professionals should provide a process to collect necessary information, build stakeholder coalitions, create and assess responses and support implementation and tracking.
Too often I am seeing innovation professionals not involved in these efforts at all, because they are busy working on longer-term initiatives. To me, that’s a big, fat mistake.
Innovation Career Development
A final question was asked about innovation as a career objective. All panelists (including me) agreed that it was a great career opportunity, but I do think we need to be up-front around the risk profile of our competency for new entrants. Within a corporate organisation, our career journey is probably the riskiest. And that could be a good thing by the way. We want risk takers in these roles, people who are comfortable in pivoting, both for their projects, but also their own careers. While a more defined innovation career path is emerging, we need the risk takers to drive the competency forward.
Further, I believe that as practitioners progress upward, it’s essential to take on other capabilities to sustain career growth. I am seeing fewer and fewer strictly innovation executives out there. Innovation is seen as too ethereal, too ‘different’, and frankly, too fluffy to sustain executive positions on its own. To drive personal career growth, at a certain point you need to also own something more tangible. In part, this is why leaders in strategy, product development, digital, etc. are blending in innovation roles to their titles over the last few years. Innovation natives (such as myself) need to flip the narrative, and take on other capabilities in our titles to retain sustained career success.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic. Innovation people are optimists by nature, but our world is shifting and I don’t believe that this is being taken seriously enough by leaders in the broader capability, who are meant to shape the market.
So that’s it. It was a great session, with lots of wisdom nuggets included, and I’m sure next time around I will come up with my articulate thoughts on the fly, rather than in the shower the days after the session.
As always, feel free to comment on any of the points raised above.
Aha, now I see…I didn’t really understand the connection to the title itself…
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