Getting Leadership Support For Innovation: How To Get Started

Business Support | How To
Tendayi Viki
Tendayi Viki – Author of The Corporate Startup


Most leaders now agree that innovation is important for the long term success of their organisations. The 2018 IBM Global C-Suite Study found indications that incumbent companies are striking back, with 72% of the leaders interviewed agreeing that disruption in their industries is being led by innovative incumbents. While the need for innovation has become increasingly clear, we are also learning that a large number of leaders do not yet grasp the implications of this change for how their companies are run.

A large number of leaders are still in denial, hoping that they can succeed with innovation while managing their companies with traditional tools. Some leaders still treat innovation as a sideshow – something that happens at margins of the company. Before companies can succeed with innovation, we need to help our leaders do more than just talk about the importance of innovation. We need leaders to start accepting the need for transformation. Our challenge as change agents is how to get our leaders to accept this need.

It Is Up To Us

But who does this work? Whose job is it to convince leaders about the need for change? I believe that it is the job of those of us who get it. Those of us within the company that understand why change is necessary and are passionate about innovation. It is up to us to take up the challenge of convincing our leaders about the need for transformation.

If those of us who get it don’t do it, then the work will necessarily fall to those who don’t get it. When that happens you will either get no innovation happening or you will get innovation theater happening. Innovation theatre happens when people in companies start using innovation tools and artefacts without fully understanding the principles that underlie those practices. This is why it is up to us to ensure that innovation is done the right way.

Small Incremental Steps

But given the size of the challenge we are facing, how do we even begin? Just thinking about the magnitude of what we are trying to accomplish can be daunting. The size of the companies we work in and the way traditional tools have been embedded in the culture make this a difficult task. Every organization has active antibodies that resist any suggestions of change.

The discipline with doing this work is to take small incremental steps. Never take on the whole organization at the same time – if you do that you will fail. It is important to always keep the end goal in mind. However, it is also important to take small incremental steps, especially at the beginning. This article describes the first three steps you can take toward getting leadership support for innovation:

  1. Start With Discovery: Resist the temptation to begin with advocacy straight away. Instead, spend some time understanding the context of your company. It may be true that you have been part of the organization for sometime, but when it comes to the challenges your leadership is facing, there may be things that you don’t yet understand. The reasons for beginning with discovery is that we want to develop bespoke solutions for our leaders, rather than a one-size fits all. Demonstrating that we understand what our leaders are facing is also a good way to get long-term buy-in.
  2. Start Small: Resist the temptation to go big at the beginning. It is virtually impossible to change a large companies all at once. Starting small allows you the opportunity to learn. It is also easier to get support from leaders to apply innovation practice at a smaller scale with one or two projects. We can then share our learnings, celebrate our successes  and get permission to do big things later.
  3. Start With Early Adopters: Resist the temptation to take on the strong skeptics early. Instead, focus on early adopters. In every organisation there are one or two leaders who get it. Focus on working with them and helping them succeed with innovation tools. Working with early adopters is great because they are willing to let you try new things, fail and learn. These learnings will be very useful later in the transformation process.

These are the first three steps you can take at the beginning of the transformation process. The manner in which you take the steps can be specific to your context. For example, in certain companies an innovation lab might be a great way to get started. This provides a safe space to try new ways of working and work with early adopters. But we must not forget the ultimate goal is to change how our leaders view and manage innovation. So as we take these first three steps, our goal should be to get early wins, celebrate those with our leaders and then get permission to do bigger things.

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