What it takes to be an innovator (part 4)

From being a pawn to becoming a pioneer

The formal organization: How do I reach across organizational layers?

Organizational hierarchies are perceived as barriers by most innovators. Top management acknowledges the strategic importance of innovation, but doesn’t know how to translate it to the rest of the organization in meaningful ways. Middle management is focused on short term objectives and efficiency. To professional workers, the challenges experienced by customers are not necessarily reflected into the organizational priorities. On top of that, “innovation” is often put under the umbrella of a single department (like R&D) where, as soon as it reaches any form of significance, it is “aligned” with the rest of the organization, thus missing its purpose. So how can the innovator maneuver his way through these organizational slices?

The real challenge is to incorporate innovation within each and every layer by using the potential of all employees. I.e., (1) try to find out where top management is heading towards, and use your expertise to help them formulate tangible objectives and measurable outcomes (2) help middle management to implement the innovation policy through information, communication, specific innovation actions and -KPIs at the level of their department or team (3) make sure challenges and opportunities voiced by professionals are heard throughout the organization (e.g. on-line platform, network). Doing these things successfully demands that you as an innovator balance boldness with respect, leadership with loyalty.

If nothing helps, you may want to consider working “undercover”, and use the space there is without asking for permission. Make sure however that you have a risk management plan, in case your adventure doesn’t have a happy ending.

The informal organization – who’s running the show?

Besides the formal organization we often find an informal/invisible organization: clusters of “subjective passionate” followers that somehow pay allegiance to people who pull the strings “behind the scenes”. As an innovator you need to be sensitive to the unwritten rules: find out who these influencers are, and find out what drives them. Who among them is able to leverage your innovation to the next level? Also, take the path with least resistance, i.e. start with those people who are open to your idea(s). Finally, consider that innovation strategy and education are doomed to fail if not supported by the organization’s culture. Consider these things before choosing your game!

How do I handle resistance?

Just like any other emotion like joy or anger, resistance cannot be overcome by force. Look at it from the bright side: the fact that there is resistance proves that people care! If in addition to that you resist the temptation to categorize people into opposites (the good and the bad) and realize that people simply have different wishes based on perceptions, you’re on your way to creating room for innovation, because: (1) “battling the trenches” diverts your energy from serving the favorable minded (2) instead you’ll find time to focus on finding corresponding viewpoints and opportunities in a constructive way (3) you won’t feel the urge or need to please the unconverted (…). Or to put it in an organizational context, don’t look at yourself swimming alone upstream against the overall majority, but consider that the organization is made of several streams and that it’s up to you to find what stream(s) your plan or an idea fits into. The trick is not to ask “what do you think of my plan?”, but to ask “what can you do with such a plan?”

Giving feedback

So you’ve succeeded in mobilizing people around you. But what if you suddenly notice that one of your “adopters” acts in a totally different way than expected? Do you urge this person to adjust his behavior? Do you call for a meeting to put everyone “on the same page”? Do you provide feedback, or do you do nothing at all? Rather than looking at the behavior itself, look at the impact it has in that particular instance.

Giving feedback can be valuable and motivating as long as it is genuine, meaning that it shouldn’t feel like another attempt to “instruct” the subject to do things in one way or another. This kind of hypocrisy should be avoided because it creates vagueness and makes the subject wonder what it is that you want from her/him.

The good old fashioned way of steering can be more effective in certain cases. Not everyone likes to be told how to do things, but then again clear instructions are often preferred over “beating around the bush”.

Whether it is steering or giving feedback on somebody’s behavior, you do good by acting as soon as possible: the longer you allow “wrong” behavior to happen, the more likely it has already been adopted and even practiced as a habit within the team or organization.

The organization’s life cycle

The degree to which an organization is open to new ideas depends (among other things) on what stage of life cycle the company’s in:

  • During the pioneering phase there is an intense, intrinsic motivation and focus on what the organization wants to achieve. There is a lot of room for innovation and entrepreneurship, and little room for rules – fertile ground for the innovator!
  • During the maturity phase, rules and procedures are introduced to keep the organization under control and to maintain operational efficiency. There’s less room for creativity and new ideas are either imported from elsewhere and/or brought under the umbrella of a separate (usually R&D) division. As an innovator, you should be mindful of the tension that exists between producing cutting edge ideas passionately on one hand, and rationally maintaining them on the other hand. Unless you’re aware of this and unless you’re willing to put your efforts in helping the organization to find the right balance and flow, you may find it very frustrating to work in this kind of phase.
  • During years of crisis, organizations fight for survival while carrying the weight of structures built up during the growth years. They struggle to keep up with the pace of change in the environment. As a result, more often than not, top management decides to cut costs in order to improve efficiency. Only few leaders choose to “re-invent” the organization with a new idea, even if it appears to have good chances of survival. In this case, strong leadership is required to navigate through times of high risk exposure and to cope with uncertainty.

So in case you see nothing really changes in your organization’s self proclaimed transformation, ask yourself whether you work at the right place.

The borderline between efficiency and innovation

As we know, mature organizations seek for incremental innovation to improve efficiencies within their existing markets or business. For breakthrough innovation to happen, organizations must seek to explore new products or services outside of their known markets and comfort zone. How to integrate these two models is the subject of different points of view: Some say innovation must be kept separate from the “regular” organization in order to prevent it from being overruled by the existing ways of thinking. Others advocate the opposite: if innovation is incorporated across all departments and layers in the company, then this eliminates the need for transfer. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages.

Adding to this is that company departments quarrel among themselves about allocation of costs and/or sharing of possible benefits – if any. Understandably, the innovator faces a formidable challenge. The difficult task of the innovator is then to actively and informally establish contacts with professionals across departments and to come up with a value proposition that transcends the bureaucratic obstacles and departmental silos.

  • One way of doing this is to introduce a company-wide learning program covering “sustainable and innovative leadership”, tapping into the potential creativeness of all resources across the company
  • Another one is to seek for new insights and ideas beyond the organization’s own ecosystem (e.g. universities, research institutes, new ventures, etc…)

How do I “sell” innovation?

The concept of innovation is hard to sell because it is perceived as vague or soft. Instead, turning your attention to the results of the innovation process, including solutions and/or behavioral changes, will help you to sell the concept. So prepare yourself to answer a few FAQ about innovation:

  • What is innovation? Innovation can be defined in tangible terms as the successful application of new findings, which in turn is determined by the rate of adoption by the final users
  • Why invest in innovation? Organizations invest in innovation (1) In order to gain a competitive advantage; (2) in order to overcome challenges posed by a changing environment (survival) or (3) in order to contribute to a better world (future oriented)
  • How radically do we need to innovate? From incremental innovation (e.g. Ford Focus throughout the last 10 years) through radical innovation (e.g. iPhone) to disruptive innovation (e.g. Nintendo Wii), it is important to achieve a good mix of all three in order to warrant continuity
  • How “new” is your innovation? Great ideas aren’t always successful, much depends on the relevance of the idea to the organization, to the market and to the world. Adoption is key
  • How can we measure the results of our innovation? This question alone is already a result by itself!


Source: “Baanbreker!” – Rutger Slump & Simon Douw (2015)