Innovation teams often find themselves in a catch-22.

The business needs more evidence in order to provide support, and yet they need the business' support in order to deliver that evidence.

How to deal with this tension? How to get internal stakeholders to understand what’s happening outside? In other words, what is the best way to bring the business along?

During our recent Innov8rs Learning Lab on Foresight & Business Design, Billy Meyers (Director, Technology Innovation at Panera Bread), Danielle Ferry (Managing Director, Head of Product Strategy (KYC) at Moody’s Analytics), Claus von Riegen (VP, Head of Business Model Innovation at SAP SE), Ellie Amirnasr (Director of Digital Ventures at MANN+HUMMEL), and Rose Tighe (Innovation Coach and Leader, Sky Labs at Sky) shared their tactics and tips.

Different Stuctures, Yet The Same Need For Support

Panera has adopted a distributed approach to innovation. Here, different roles have ‘innovation’ in their job title, and the company is also very open to collaboration with others. From being an early adopter of Apple Pay in its stores to making voice ordering available through the Google Assistant, the company has been nimble and fast in making changes over the years.

On the other hand, Moody's new products are incubated in dedicated business units, completely ring-fenced from business as usual. In contrast, a centralized innovation group focuses on making the overall innovation process more efficient and smoother across the company.

MANN+HUMMEL has adopted a slightly different approach. In fact, a few years ago, the company created i2M, or “Innovation to Market”, an incubator for digital ventures. i2M operates as a separate legal entity, with simple processes and separate financing controls, so innovators can test ideas, fail, and learn without affecting the core business.

These examples show that there are many different ways how companies are structuring their innovation functions. Regardless the structure, one factor can’t be overlooked: support for innovation from the core business and its leadership- and this is true even within the most innovative companies. How to overcome this hurdle and ensure support?

How To Bring The Business Along?

Corporate innovators typically spend a lot of time aligning with leaders and convincing them that innovation is a valuable and rewarding investment. Next, we’ll explore some best practices that can help you bring the business along and develop leaders’ confidence more quickly, increasing the chances of success of your innovation projects and/or ventures.

1. Know Your Company

First and foremost, Rose believes innovators need to deeply understand the nature of their company and design the innovation process accordingly. “Our projects have been successful because we know the challenges our company faces, the gotchas around the corner, how it behaves, what its culture is, and what triggers its immune system reaction. As such, our number one priority is to design innovation around these constraints”, she says.

“The innovation process can’t be the same in two different corporates. Understanding what you’re dealing with and translating it into your process is essential”.

Billy seconds Rose and adds that knowing a company comes from reaching out to different business leaders and asking simple questions, including (but not limited to):

  • What are some of the challenges you’re currently facing in your business area?
  • Are there any ideas you’ve parked away or haven’t been able to pursue? (Explain how the innovation team can help move some of those ideas forward).
  • How would you define innovation?

Having them part of the innovation conversation and making them feel part of that process instead of apart from it is key to building supportive relationships. In the best-case scenario, they will become an actual extension of the innovation team. “When people feel ownership of an idea, they’re more committed to helping implement it”, concludes Billy.

2. Speak the Language of the Business

Knowing your company and speaking its language go hand in hand. And it all boils down to investment decisions: your project won’t be funded if your core team isn’t interested or if you can’t demonstrate how it aligns with the business roadmap.

It’s common for innovators to engage in conversations with leaders about innovation-first, unrelatable topics like the Metaverse. “Business leaders’ eyes just glaze over in these cases”, says Billy. Leadership attention and support are easy to lose. Therefore, according to Claus, structuring the conversation around what matters most to them or, to put it another way, around relevant problems is critical.

Identifying unmet needs is one way to come up with relevant problems. And the more you prove to leaders how vital these problems are for the company and how your solution will impact the metrics they care most about, the less likely they will be to ignore your project.

3. Plant “Innovation Seeds” Slowly

In Danielle’s view, big corporations like Moody’s tend to rest on their laurels. Since they’re already doing well, it’s difficult for them to understand why rocking the boat is so important. Yet there’s so much happening out there in the startup ecosystem, and the world is constantly changing. As a matter of fact, if we don’t disrupt ourselves, we’ll be disrupted. Thus, she suggests planting the innovation seed, or the idea that if we don’t do something, we’re really at risk of disruption.

“You can’t just keep doing what you’ve always done and expect your business to grow the way it has been growing so far”.

Over time, this will foster a culture of innovation across the company. There’s a bit of a learning curve, and you might need some extra support. Speakers from outside Moody’s are often invited to the annual managing directors meeting or other flagship events to educate leaders about innovation and disruption. “When innovation takes hold, it can be very powerful, but you need to be patient”, wraps up Danielle.

4. Adopt the Crawl-Walk-Run Approach and Start Small

Companies are rarely able to “leapfrog” when it comes to adopting innovation mindsets. A crawl-walk-run approach is much more realistic: if you want to succeed in innovation, you must take it slow and learn how to crawl and walk before you run. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words – “if you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run, walk, if you can’t walk, crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward” – this approach has worked really well at Panera.

How do you put all this into practice? By starting small and framing any innovation project as an experiment. According to Billy and Danielle, it is more difficult to obtain support for a multimillion-dollar project than for a much smaller investment. Testing out new ideas on a small scale in sandbox environments can be an extremely effective strategy to build leaders’ confidence around innovation. Of course, this all depends on what the investment threshold is.

5. Teach Leaders how to Measure Innovation Success

Danielle and Ellie have no doubts: financial metrics can’t be used to measure innovation success. Eventually, innovation will yield financial benefits, but it takes time. Thus, focusing on ROI and how much revenue you can generate in a few years will only set you up for failure.

“Let’s help our leaders shift their focus from making money right away to developing repeatable, scalable, and profitable businesses in the long run”.

At Moody's, they use activity-based metrics to measure innovation, including (but not limited to): number of discovery interviews, number of ideas considered, number of design testing sessions, number of design sprints completed, and number of early access clients. Again, innovators should teach and remind leaders how to measure the success of innovation.