Forty-four quarters. That’s how I describe my tenure as CEO of a public company subsidiary. I served in this position for 10 years, which sounds much more impressive, so why express it in quarters? I could save people a bit of mental math, but I think this phrase better captures what many leaders feel: a drive to constantly and consistently renew their efforts to meet ongoing expectations for growth.
It’s no wonder that innovation has become a core part of the discussion for leadership teams. There is an allure in doing something completely new that could provide sustained value to the business. And it sounds like a lot of fun! I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of smart executives over the years who have undertaken ambitious and promising innovation initiatives. No matter the industry or the particular innovation challenge, I’ve noticed something consistent: the further a company reaches beyond its core capabilities in order to innovate, the more likely they are to get stuck.
Let me be clear—this is not an indictment of those companies or their leaders. Getting stuck is the most natural thing in the world when we’re trying something far outside our typical sphere of operation. As a leader, it’s critical you recognize when “stuck” happens. You may notice that progress seems extraordinarily slow. You may have a lot of meetings and talk about the initiative often, but very little comes from these discussions.
Funnily enough, you may be able to diagnose your team is stuck by taking a look at your email inbox. I met with one executive who turned her laptop around and showed me a message with over 300 people cc’d and bcc’d. In my experience, this explosion of communication bubbles up to mask an underlying problem: When we don’t know what to do next, we enlist more and more people to help share the burden.
If any of this sounds familiar, here are three steps to getting unstuck and putting your innovation project back on track:
- Cut out the buzzword salad. Often the clarity of the challenge in front of us is obscured when we fill the void with all kinds of buzzwords that make us sound like we know what we’re talking about. With innovation especially, it is critical the team is on the same page. Are we trying to invent new products to address new markets? Or, are we overhauling the way our business provides value? How much do we expect to change our fundamental processes in pursuit of innovation? Forget the catchy terms you picked up from a business magazine or consulting deck. Your team should create its own shared vocabulary around innovation and try to set reasonable benchmarks for your industry, your company and your particular set of circumstances.
- Seek wisdom. When you get really clear on what you’re trying to achieve through innovation efforts, you’re ready to look for some help. There are bound to be gaps between what you can confidently execute and what you need to get really good at in order to be successful. The key here is you aren’t looking for some Yoda stashed away in a corner of your organization. If you are pursuing innovation, by definition you are reaching beyond the wisdom of your current team, and maybe even your industry. Look for other businesspeople who are a few steps further along in a similar journey. You may be surprised at how willing others are to connect and share lessons learned.
- Finally, protect the innovators. When you get an innovation project up and running, there are a lot of dangers posed by the typical practices of a large, established company. Everything from burdensome audits to the expense of requisitioning office furniture can hinder a team that needs to “move fast and break things,” as the saying goes. Over the last century of innovation, major corporations have set up protected skunkworks because they know the team of innovators may be squashed by an anxious leadership team. Consider how you can help shield nascent innovation programs from “the way things are done.”