When executives create teams to pursue breakthrough innovation they typically push the work down to the operating levels, just like they do so successfully with their core businesses. That sounds eminently laudable – after all, they’re “empowering” a group of hands-on people. They think they are too busy to deal with innovation but there’s another reason for taking that approach: Leaders don’t want to get involved in big innovation. They are afraid of it because they haven’t experienced it or been schooled in managing it; and bosses don’t like being visibly vulnerable.
In addition, innovation requires non-traditional decision-making and frequent failure. Those are uncomfortable prospects for leaders, but the hard truth is this: big innovation requires the active engagement of an executive Sponsor. What’s a sponsor and how to find the sponsor in any organization? It’s very easy. The sponsor is the person who can say “yes’ without permission.
What does that mean? It means many people can say no to peers and lower-level employees but few have the authority to say yes. Ask yourself these questions about your organization:
- If innovation teams comes up with exciting but raw ideas, who can say “yes” to dedicating people, money and time for development and testing without permission?
- If development goes well who can decide to spend even more money, people, and time for commercialization, again without permission?
- As the core businesses resist big new ideas because they are confusing and create inefficiencies, who must be able to provide critical air cover for both the ideas and the teams?
In most organizations it’s the CEO or the president of a large, decentralized division or business unit. The rule is quite simple: The Higher The Goal, The Higher The Role. Boards have authority as well, especially when it comes to capital investment. This is where it can get tricky because democratic decision-making at any level, but particularly that one, tends to sink high-potential new ideas to their lowest common denominators, especially if the board is hands-on and risk-averse.
The sponsor must come to play and put “Skin in The Game,” which means being visible for taking risks and being accountable for successes and failures. If the ideas are big enough there will be more failures than successes, which is why sponsors must visibly model consequential behaviors. They can’t hang back, assuming they will be able to “recognize the big ideas when I see them.” This assumption can be very destructive because big ideas often begin in absurdity. As Albert Einstein once said, “If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there’s no hope for it.” Any organization that doesn’t see the top dog willing to get dirty won’t lift a finger in the name of innovation….unless it’s the middle one. They have seen careers hurt or even ruined when someone stood up for a great idea that failed.
Innovation should be a larger-than-is-the-norm percentage of any sponsor’s time. And while references to his genius are becoming over-used, this was the (not-so-secret) secret of Steve Jobs. When asked why he spent so much of his time focused on innovation and not the core business, legend has it he said, “I have managers who do that.” Whether he said it or not doesn’t matter. It’s the message.
Sponsors must come to play in another way. As mentioned earlier they must learn to value absurdity as the potential source of big new ideas. We had a client in the foodservice business many years ago. The company’s core competency was soy. Their people knew just about everything that can be done with a soybean. The challenge was to create new soy-based products. During an exercise designed to get everyone thinking differently the participants were asked to share a favorite movie scene. One of them was from Animal House and the famous cafeteria scene where John Belushi stuffs his face with food and punches his cheeks so hard the food explodes from his mouth as he yells, “I’m a zit!” (a pimple). This led to an absurd wish; “I wish we could make a bagged whipped topping that looks like a zit.” You can imagine the disgust and laughter, which is always good because newness and laughter have a common link, which is anxiety.
Now if you had been asked to vote for the 10-15 best ideas from among 400-500 candidates, to be developed the following day in small breakout teams, would you have picked that one? 95% of any group would say no (and the other 5% would be lying). But the client’s project leader was intrigued and asked one of the breakout teams to see what they could do with it in a couple of hours. That absurd wish led to the development of one of the company’s most successful product platforms. And it is in fact a bagged whipped topping that looks like a zit. Imagine management’s initial reaction to the idea. Fortunately, they came to “play,” the idea was shared early enough for it to be played with in its infant stages, and everybody (and the company) won.
Innovation is not only messy and uncertain; it’s scary. However, if the people who can say yes without permission understand the need to be on the front lines with the troops, periodically making themselves available to play with their innovation teams, then it becomes an adventure, and it’s fun.
By Vijay Govindarajan & Mark Sebell
Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He is coauthor of Reverse Innovation (HBR Press, April 2012). Mark Sebell is the Founder & CEO at Creative Realities, a Boston-based innovation management collaborative, and author of Ban the Humorous Bazooka (Dearborn Press, 2001).