Are you building a roadmap for corporate innovation or creating an innovation graveyard?

There is an obsession with being innovative, and in our desire to be innovative we can be dazzled by the theatre of innovation and rush too quickly to claim the mantel of having an innovation culture. When in reality there’s a desire, enthusiasm and motivation to bring ideas to life but through the same processes and mechanisms that standard work projects and streams of work are delivered.

I recently read an article about the importance of leaders and directors to lead with strategy and catalyse innovation to support the maintenance and growth of organisations throughout these times of economic upheaval. And I agree wholeheartedly, there is a growing need to action innovation to support growth. That being said there really is a lack of clarity around the different types of strategies, models and an understanding of how to implement innovation to access growth.

The response is to follow the start-up world and treat it like an accelerator. The problem is corporate innovation is neither an accelerator, a start-up nor a venture business. Going down this path an organisation risks working in a model that will not produce any significant results. If this is your current model time to craft the stories for why you haven’t achieved a return on investment. You’ll be in some great company. Globally, organisations spend around $3trillion on corporate innovation programs that don’t provide any return on investment… all.

Why does this happen?

Innovation is hard and doesn’t follow the same rule book and business rhythm. The risk is, and what often happens, is that organisations end up pushing innovation management and delivery into the current structured business project delivery model. It’s not easy, or sensible, to predict results or forecast budgets for true innovation projects and in these models initiatives that don’t have a defined budget, outcomes and benefits fail in these structures. If this is how you are managing innovation inside your organisation get prepped for failure.

The alternative is to fill your innovation portfolio with the adoption of new technology and the creation & development of known and structured ideas. These are all great and entirely necessary for the organisation, but they are not innovation. When we are not innovating but calling it innovation, we need to re-think our approach to innovation. If we consider the adoption of technology or building out ideas to match competitors in market - are we really innovating? We need to call out the elephant in the room and label this innovation washing. If attention, budget and resources are allocated to activities that can be whitewashed as innovation, then we don’t leave enough room and space for the real genius to flow to the surface.

Innovation needs to play by a different set of rules.

Innovation is never on time, in your budget cycle or easy to manage through the standard gates for planning and approval. The machinations, systems, processes and approval gates inside organisations are designed for manageable, consistent stable growth based on the known risk factors.

What happens when your employees give you their ideas and nothing happens with them? Or innovation is focused on the adoption of external ideas? You end up with an innovation graveyard. This is not only where your employees’ ideas have gone to be buried and forgotten about, it’s also where the soul of innovation in your organisation goes to die.

Innovation is more than a strategy – it’s a subculture inside your organisation. If you consider this through the lens of the people you are asking to participate in your innovation program and you do not deliver on the promise, you effectively trigger impending doom for your innovation culture.

Culture is an effect, not a cause.

It’s the thing you get and not the lever you pull.

So how do you create a Corporate Innovation Roadmap for growth, and avoid building an innovation graveyard?

There is endless information, guidance and thinking tools on how ideate and move through different thinking methodologies to come up with ideas to support the growth of the organisation. But what we don’t address are the problems of system failure in corporate innovation.

As Einstein allegedly said “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. To make innovation successful we need to judge it by appropriate rules and mechanisms that sets it up for success.

To create a roadmap for Corporate Innervation we need to build a sustainable business model in alignment with strategy. This isn’t about over intellectualising innovation, it is about the creation of a critical innovation flow inside an organisation that moves beyond the idea.

1. Goals and Focus: Innovation is about designing change on how we do things and doing it in a way that adds significant value. One of the challenges with innovation in the corporate landscape is the focus on ideation and the fun innovation theatre at the beginning of the process. It is easy to build creative thinking and innovation ideation into the day to day process, and get excited about it. We also need to provide the strategy, long-term goals and some boundaries so our people can provide their early-stage ideas that are focused on adding value to the organisation.

The ideas are only about 0.5% of the process. It’s another thing to take the shackles off and work through the remaining 99.5% of work to become proficient in the delivery of innovation which is beyond the scope of the current program of work.

2. Decision Making Process: Organisations are bureaucracies that generally have a responsibility to shareholders or equity investors, which means that we to provide some stage-gated process for selecting appropriate ideas to develop. We need to be able to manage, understand and rank ideas in a portfolio. It can be really easy to standardise some of the information in an innovation canvas (email me at if you want a template) to be able to work out a high level which ideas we should tackle first. All ideas carry an emotive value and we need to remove that so we are not blinded by the potential fun of innovation.

3. Prioritisation: It’s impossible to resource and fund every great idea that meets the decision-making hurdles. In order to focus on the ideas that we believe will create the greatest benefits we need to create a process for assessing these ideas on their strategic alignment, ie do they have the potential to become a future business unit, and providing some guidance around the financial benefit they may be able to achieve. Whilst we need a process to support decision making, we also need to balance this with a little intuition so we can be data driven and intuition led. If you want to learn more about this process please check out my article here.

The main goal in this process is to ensure we select ideas or projects that address or solve our problems and we can see a way forward through monetisation. We don’t need to know all the answers at this stage and we also need to provide enough space for the right ideas to breath and evolve.

4. Risk: Being truly innovative is about being able to embrace ambiguity. Innovation isn’t about the nicely planned out programs of work where you can dot every I and cross every T. Innovation can be supported by working with the risk function throughout the entire innovation development process – when we connect the functions of risk and innovation inside the corporate landscape we end up with greater results, greater collaboration and shorter development times.

5. Investment: If we wait for the planning and budgeting cycles each year, not only will your people lose quite a bit of momentum, but it’s highly likely you’ll never get any ideas off the ground. You need a different investment mechanism process – one that is governed by a different, but defined, set of rules. We also need to be able to invest at any time of the year – strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. The same applies for the allocation of resources – having a flexible resource model to allow you to utilise people from all areas of the organisation on an as needed basis will ensure the right people are working on the right projects at the right time.

6. Governance: Just because innovation doesn’t play by the same rules, doesn’t mean it’s the wild west and full of cowboy behaviour. Quite the opposite, make the process for innovation clear, succinct and measurable. Empower your teams to deliver with a ‘Minimum Viable Bureaucracy’ approach where you strive to achieve a balance between governance, risk and control and a free-flowing approach that will allow innovation teams to work efficiently, consistently and creatively.

This is just a high level view of establishing a the framework for a Critical Innovation Process inside your organisation. Whilst these are all steps that are required, the implementation and development of these in each organisation are nuanced to suit the culture, maturity and overall strategic objectives.

Remember you don’t want innovation to be either a one off project or delivered by only a select group of people. By taking the time to build a structured process that works you will start to remove some of the problems that were previously insurmountable. When you make a critical innovation flow inside your business you will see the real ideas and genius inside your organisation.