“The single most common complaint I hear from those who are in charge of innovation work is that leaders aren’t “bought into” innovation”.

In prep for his keynote at Innov8rs New York (August 1st), we sat down with Brant Cooper, CEO at Moves the Needle and author of New York Times bestseller The Lean Entrepreneur- and he started the conversation with that observation..

Despite the now seemingly universal world truth that enterprises must be more agile to remain relevant, despite the breaking in of intrapreneurial spirit, the lab-running, the endlessly evolving innovation programs designed to bring new kinds of value to the business and its customers — the perception is that senior management is not fully on board.

But is this actually the case?

“Innovators don’t need to wrestle for initial funding anymore.

Leadership – i.e. those who lead business units other than innovation labs – more recently has bought into innovation: they understand that they can’t continue to work in the way they have been, so innovation managers are misdiagnosing the problem.

Leaders know they need to focus on answering difficult questions like “are we moving fast enough?” “are we focused enough on the customer” and “can we take in new information and change what we’re doing?” but when asked whether their organizations are behaving this way, most leaders will say ‘no, no, and no.’ “

This means that although they recognize the challenge, know that they need to financially back it and understand that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the organization’s behavior – behavior in leadership is yet to be shifted.

Leaders are bought into innovation; they just haven’t been shown what innovation means on a practical level for them – and how it translates into their day-to-day behavior.

‘This is a different obstacle to overcome than creating buy-in… so the tactics that innovators are using to get the support that they need are usually wrong’ says Brant. 

What keeps leaders up at night?

It is up to those in charge of innovation practices… the Lab Heads, the Exploration Leads, the agents of change, to work on ways to transform wider business behavior. And that begins with helping leaders to reach their goals.

The Head of Labs manages a new class of highly-sought-after corporate-creative brains, a class which has been sent away from the din of daily business to jumpstart a new movement – invariably within a cool, casual start-up incubator setup.

Starting small is a great way to begin a breeding ground for a new way of working, but you can’t expect to change the mindset and working habits of leadership and the teams they manage, whilst innovation and its practices remain in a completely different context to core business units.

“We know that behaviors can be changed – that leaders can work agile, apply design thinking principles, and all the rest with great success, because [at Moves the Needle] we have run workshops with leadership to help them both develop new skills, and open up their eyes to what applying these skills and fully investing in new ways of working really means. The realizations and results are phenomenal.”

A single track for exploration and execution

Then, how to integrate this way of working into daily life? The practical challenge is not in understanding the principles of lean start-up, design thinking and agile, but in making the exploratory elements of this approach – the empathy, experimentation, and evidence-based decision-making – a complementary part of, not an addition to, existing team KPIs:

“The trick is teaching leaders how to design sprints for themselves and their teams, such that they can balance the search and the execution parts in their normal business.

Leadership views all of this search work as an addition to their regular work. They’re concentrating so hard on execution mode, that they have to figure out a way to spend 100% of their time on hitting targets, and then find an extra 50% somewhere for exploration.”

There aren’t enough hours in the day, nor is this a sustainable model.

“What we’re teaching them is how to properly plan sprints and retros, so they can integrate the search and the execution in a balanced way throughout the company.

It doesn’t matter what department you’re in or what your targets are – there has to be a balance between these two aspects in order to both get ahead and to deliver your immediate business results.”

In other words, if you’re teaching people how to switch into search mode when things are unknown, but this uses the same set of metrics as you use for your short-term results, then your search can be aligned with exploration.

“What confuses people is when you have to come up with a different set of outcomes for innovation practices compared to core business – because this means that management has to change compensation and incentives too.

I’m also very bullish on the idea that if leaders provide the right goals and metrics to a team of smart people, they will go out and find the best way of getting there.”

Helping leadership to create the guardrails for success, and then making teams autonomous in achieving it, also enables leaders to create space for their own exploratory playground, based on defining the ‘how’ on their own terms.

Innovators, eat your own dog food

With so much to do in the way of bringing leadership and the wider business on board with innovation programs, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we must practice what we preach.

We need to do our own empathy work, our own experiments, and use value streams to differentiate between the program itself functionally – and how the program is being marketed and sold internally – for example to leaders.

“Many aspects of launching and scaling innovation practices innovators themselves forget to do. It’s very meta and ironic, and the first step is recognizing it by being able to reconcile the behaviors, why you are trying to change them, and whether you yourself are doing enough.”

The reason innovation teams need to start small is that they need to prove value first. But it’s easy to forget some of the hidden value streams fundamental to scaling, such as giving leadership the tools for teams innovate independently, by stepping into their shoes.

How can innovators help leaders to achieve what they need? How can they demonstrate the value in this approach, based on their goals?

Brant gives a great example of helping to solve the leadership problem across business units:

“We worked with two groups within a corp – one, the global group who was responsible for coming up with new products which would go to market years down the road. The second was the commercial group, with numbers they have to hit not somewhere down the road – but this year, and next year.

And so, in that regard, we understand the metrics they use to define their success.

But there is an overlap: the commercial department is largely focused on bringing new products to market in emerging countries, or finding out why an existing product has stalled in its growth. There is a lot of uncertainty here, and what we’re teaching them is how to balance the execution in hitting numbers, with managing that uncertainty and learning as they go.

It may mean that with this kind of model, they can even exceed their targets.”

So with this in mind, should companies at a certain level of innovation maturity shut the labs, as some are suggesting?

Not necessarily, but we should move towards a near-future where labs no longer have to fly the flag for innovation practices. Instead, the organization understands the value of these practices in relation to core business initiatives, whether they’re the CMO, the CTO or the CFO.

In this instance, the role of innovation labs can move more towards playing with trends and running experiments, finding that far-out new technology or that promising start-up to acquire – not for the next year like their core business counterparts, but farther into the future.

But, as Brant concluded our conversation, “first, innovators need to justify their own existence by bringing that spirit into the near-term, and working alongside core leaders. That will solve the perceived issue of leaders not being bought in right away.”