Have you ever noticed how some people in your organization seem better than others at getting traction for their ideas? Sometimes you might find yourself questioning the relevance and brilliance of their ideas compared with your own — yet there they go! What it is they’re doing that makes the difference? What magic sauce have they found? What higher powers have they tapped?
These are things I’ve wondered about through a lifetime of study, exploration, and practice.
The work of many authors has shed light on these questions, but the work of Stanford professor Dr. Robert Burgelman — including his book Inside Corporate Innovation: Strategy, Structure, and Managerial Skills — has probably had the most impact on my thinking and practice.
Burgelman studied innovation successes and failures in a large U.S.-based technology company over a 6-year period. By adapting and applying his model to study innovation attempts at companies that I’ve worked with, I was able to see what practices enabled or prevented innovation. I looked at innovation at each level of an organization and throughout its trajectory as people moved it — or attempted to move it — from a raw idea or collection of ideas into a valued innovation. This work has informed CCL’s own work on leadership practices that support innovation at each level of leadership from individual employees all the way up to the C-suite.
Innovation is very much about connecting ideas with ideas, ideas with people, and people with people. As innovator Bob Rosenfeld puts it, organizations don’t innovate — people do. Thus, successfully steering your own idea through an organization or helping others do the same is a political process requiring you to connect with and influence key stakeholders at each phase of the process.
When approaching innovation, reflect on these 8 components:
- Research: If you’re about to engage in bringing an Idea into action, be sure to talk with a savvy innovator — someone you regard as having successfully championed a new product, tool, program, or service, especially if they’re within your organization. Ask them what made the difference. If they had to do it over, what they would do differently?
- Passion: Gauge your own passion around the idea. Are you prepared to go the extra mile with it? Are you prepared to use your own energy, time, and resources to get the idea off the ground?
- Ego: Are you really committed to your idea? How much are you prepared to sacrifice, including letting others shape and run with the idea? How much is your own ego wrapped up in the idea? How might that enable or get in the way of its movement forward?
- Collaboration: Looking at your network within and external to the organization — including clients, vendors, and professional associates — who do you feel safe sharing your idea with and getting their support? Might you need to expand your network to engage someone more influential in the organization? Who is politically well connected that you can form a relationship and share the idea with? Who might be peers in other parts of the organization, with whom you can form an alliance or team? What is in it for anyone whose support you seek? What can you and your idea do for them?
- Connection: What connections can you make with existing projects? What other emerging innovations can you connect with or ride the coattails of? Where in the organization’s strategy and portfolio might your idea fit? Who “owns” the relevant component of the strategy or portfolio? Can you approach them directly? If not, can someone else make the necessary connections?
- Relevance: If there is no fit with the current strategy or portfolio, are you aware of anything that’s going on in the world that might provide an early sign of an emerging zeitgeist, encouraging the need for the innovation you have in mind? How might you use this knowledge to energize the potential innovation and influence a shift in the organization’s strategy to accommodate it?
- Benefit: The innovation you have in mind has to demonstrate that it’s a solution to a challenge or need. What are your early thoughts about what that need might be? What evidence do you have for that? Who might you feel safe sharing your idea with that can help you articulate the need and the benefits of your solution?
- Legacy: Looking way, way ahead if this innovation becomes a roaring success, what will be its legacy to the organization and the world — even if the innovation is not a success in its own right?
By taking the time to consider these elements of innovation at the beginning, you’ll be in a much stronger position to push for your idea and help navigate through the next steps. Before long, your colleagues will be looking to you for advice on how to shepherd something through the innovation process.
Ready to get off the sidelines? Read more about how to approach new ideas.