Should leading an innovation team be a reward?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Should leading an innovation team be a reward?Paul Sloane wrote an article a while back that for some reason just popped into my consciousness. I guess I have Twitter to thank for that. Paul’s article examines the fact that many organizations place junior executives on innovation efforts. The thinking often is that more experienced executives are running “important” businesses or products and can’t be bothered to run an innovation project. He highlights a story about IBM and the fact that IBM was constantly “killing” new innovative ideas due to a lack of management and resources. I won’t repeat the entire Sloane article. You can read it for yourself here.

What I do want to think through with you today, gentle reader, is the great “what if” of innovation. What if it was a reward to run an innovation project or initiative, rather than a burden or a risk? What if the executive teams handed out the leadership of innovation projects as the culmination or final step in the maturation of a seasoned executive? Wouldn’t people scramble to identify new products or services they could champion, or struggle to simply lead an innovation project? Today, when innovation comes up in an executive committee meeting, most managers flinch away, too busy or too occupied with existing projects or business lines to consider running a nascent, risky innovation effort. The risks are too great and the rewards too small. So the people who usually run innovation efforts come from one of three camps:

  1. Junior executives with less credibility, smaller networks and less experience
  2. People who dreamed up the idea in the first place (the “true believers”)
  3. The executives who don’t have “enough” on their plates and who are assigned to the leadership role rather than volunteering for it

Let’s look at reasons why each of these are fateful choices:

First, placing a junior executive on a risky innovation project doubles the chance of failure. If innovation is important, it needs every chance to succeed. Junior executives many not have the relationships, organizational pull, access to resources and funding and knowledge of how things get done that will ensure the project is successful. By assigning a junior executive to the effort, the executive team hedges their bets. If the project isn’t successful, we can hang it on a less experienced executive and didn’t “waste” a more senior executive’s time.

Placing a “true believer” as the leader of the team has it’s pluses and minuses. Assigning the person who dreamed up the idea as the leader of the effort means the leader has real passion. That person is likely sold out on the success of the idea. However, that passion and commitment may mean the individual has tunnel vision about his or her idea. Like a junior executive, the true believer may not have access to the resources or networks that could make the difference between success and failure. And, after all, the true believer may not belong to the executive club and other executives may be less than willing to extend assistance.

But I prefer either of the previous leadership examples over simply assigning an executive to lead an innovation effort who is unwilling or uninterested. Given the pressures that most executives are under, and how people are evaluated and compensated, anything thrust on someone who is already busy will fall to the back burner, or fall right off the table. Nothing puts the brakes on an innovation project like a dispassionate, uninterested executive who feels the project or initiative was assigned against their interests or judgment. Yet this is how many innovation projects get kicked off. Then the executive spends time seeking someone to run the project and minimize problems and mistakes. Keep the project alive, just don’t take any risks and don’t screw up. Probably the worst of all possible innovation worlds.

Why is it that we insist that our best and most connected and experienced people run the most stable and predictable lines of business, where there are few changes, and insist that the best growth and differentiation opportunities are run by people with less management skill, fewer relationships and less capability? In a world that is constantly changing with new competitors and a rapidly shifting customer base, why do most firms insist on placing their best executives on yesterday’s products and services, and under-staffing and under-resourcing the concepts that will drive new revenue in the future? Don’t we have this exactly backwards? Shouldn’t their be a demand by executives to be the one assigned to create the new product or service that will drive the business forward, rather than ducking away from an innovation assignment? Shouldn’t we have our junior executives cut their teeth running a “safe” existing business to gain insights and skills before leading an innovation effort?

Regardless of your thoughts on the previous paragraph, shouldn’t we build compensation and reward structures that attract our best people to lead innovation efforts? Would that mean that leading a smaller, more innovative team and creating a new product is more highly rewarded and compensated than leading a large team and cranking out dependable revenues from existing products? Which one is really harder to do?

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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