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Convincing C-Suite: establishing innovation evangelists in your senior team

For all the tremendous potential of Corporate innovation, it has little value in isolation.

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That’s because innovation is about both process and impact. Getting innovation right absolutely means continually refining and evolving its process. But that process is near meaningless if it doesn’t in some way serve the wider company.

Innovation’s impact, of course, doesn’t have to be about revolutionary released products and services, directly ramping up bottom line or building approaches that have a radical influence on a Corporation’s organisational strategy. Those outcomes are tremendous when they happen, but the pay-off of well supported Corporate innovation presents a broad feast, that can include learning from failure, developing and sharing knowledge, delivering subtle innovations to a single department or division, and even simply shifting workforce mindset or invigorating the engagement of a given team.

As such, the most meaningful, impactful innovation is always integrated with the very fabric of a Corporation, and its teams, strategy and culture. It’s commonly accepted that innovation teams and initiatives should never be silos, but how does one actually integrate them with a broader business?

There are likely two direct answers to that question; backing from C-suite, and broad employee engagement.

Here we’ll focus on C-suite.

Firstly, bear in mind C-suite don’t just hold the purse strings. Their approval will engender more open collaboration with other departments and outfits, the freedom for innovation to be truly inventive, and the opportunity to be both daring and experimental. And here ‘approval’ doesn’t just mean a signature at the bottom of a proposal document. A C-suite needs to engaged, and ideally enthusiastic. Making C-suite your most vocal evangelists might be a tall order, but if achieved it could be a remarkably powerful outcome and for more than just budget. And getting even somewhere near that lofty goal may bring manifold gains.
Fortunately, there are things you can do that are – at least in principle – relatively straightforward.

Define innovation and its aims simply and clearly within – and to – your Corporation. Innovation is a somewhat abstract craft, but it is worth the effort to create a brief, clear and direct means to communicate the discipline’s broader aims, process and potential to C-suite. It may even be worth building something of an internal ‘pitch-deck’ for innovation as a general concept, and even concocting the much talked about ‘elevator pitch’ for innovation itself. Furthermore, as pointed out by Brant Cooper of management consulting firm Moves the Needle, you may even want to drop innovation jargon – and even the word ‘innovation’ itself – in favour of familiar terms like ‘growth’ and ‘scalability’. Communicate innovation to C-suite in the language of C-suite.

Similarly, establish a narrative that frames your innovation efforts as integral to the broader Corporation’s journey and history. Conversations with C-suite should assert that your innovation effort broadly compliments the heritage, present goals, future aims and the broader vision of the Corporation itself. Make ‘innovation narrative’ and ‘Corporation narrative’ one and the same.

Establish a metric to measure impact. Collectively we may be some way from a definitive, universal metric to track and report on the impact of Corporate innovation. But thinking about a metric – and communicating that to C-suite – can serve as a means to engage the staff that will ultimately enable the potential of your efforts. And there is plenty to think about, as we’ve touched on before.

Involve C-suite. Don’t just talk with your senior team about approval. Make it clear that they are integral to the potential of innovation. Consider building short form initiatives or innovation workshops that directly welcome or involve C-suite to foster ‘innovation mindedness’ in that senior team. Encourage ‘radical candor’, allowing C-suite to be entirely frank. If they are to be your ultimate enabler and evangelist, allow them to be part of the conversation around innovation. Let them participate and observe, and learn from you.

Frame ‘impact’, ‘disruption’ and ‘change’. Fair or otherwise, innovation can be seen as disruptive to the well oiled and long-established machinery of an efficient Corporation. It is understood by some – fairly or otherwise – as an interfering force, and one that is too many stages removed from the core of a business. Simply put, it is easy to make unfair assumptions about innovation as a troublesome and overly academic entity. As such, you may have to do some internal ‘PR’ of your own to manage expectation and ‘educate up’ to C-suite.

Change is required regardless of innovation. Innovation, to a degree, exists to meet and guide inevitable change. It can be seen as an agent to manage inevitable change, rather than a catalyst for disruption for the sake of disruption. Communicate that clearly to C-suite; innovation is future-proofing against the inevitable. Shrinking support for innovation won’t mean change isn’t coming. Innovation is a tool to optimise and master change. It is not a disruptive force, but a force that can meet and guide disruption.

Assert the value of innovation. Innovation is sometimes seen as secondary to or outside of the core aims of a business. As such (and related to the above point) be confident in communicating the value of innovation. C-suite needs innovation to thrive, and even survive.

Don’t fear innovation’s tangential gains. A golden rule of innovation must be ‘never practice innovation for the sake of it’. Innovation theatre, innovation purely as a marketing exercise and innovation to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ are ill-advised motivations or approaches. But innovation can bring marketing opportunities and competitive advantages. While it is important to communicate that those are secondary gains, do not be afraid to communicate all the advantages innovation brings when asserting the value to C-suite.

None of the above are absolutely rigid rules. The approach you take in securing approval and support from C-suite will be as distinct as the individuals that make up your chief staff, and the relationships you have with them. You may even find yourself having to convert lower-level managers and other non-C-suite colleagues to build the momentum needed to take your message to the senior team.

One thing, though, is consistent. Innovation has tremendous value and potential that can impact every facet of a large business. You just need to remind C-suite of that reality.

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