By themselves, brilliant innovations are not enough. To implement your idea, you need more than a compelling rationale in order to successfully navigate the politics of innovation.

You can do the research, discover a big unmet customer need, hatch an inspired idea, prototype a solution, perform the competitive analysis, collect the ROI data- and still your innovation can hit a wall.

As an early innovation and UX practitioner since 1982, John Bowie – Author of “Navigating the Politics of UX” and Chief Research Scientist at Colorado Design Labs – has experienced many of the obstacles any innovation professional is likely to face in their organizations.

At our recent Innov8rs Unconference, John discussed the political obstacles to innovation and how to overcome them.

Here’s a summary of what he shared.

What Is Stopping Innovation Projects?

As an innovation professional, you can get your ideas from the inside out – by doing your job, you can find a better way to move something forward. Or from the outside in – the field research and the information collected from customers can inspire you to perform an innovation project. Either way, even excellent ideas are unlikely to see the light of day if you don’t pay close attention to the organization's politics. And politics are all about people placing obstacles to innovation and user experience projects.

The most common political blockers are the Not Invented Here (NIH) Syndrome (the tendency for an organization to reject ideas that did not originate there); risk aversion; protection of the status quo (refusing to create a new product that could potentially erode the market share away from the current products); and product-centricity (valuing current products that meet the market need today over everything else).

“Sooner or later, some disruptive innovation will occur and leave any company too focused on loving its own products in the dust”.

Generally speaking, the following Ten Commandments should always inform the intrapreneur’s path:

  1. Build your team, intrapreneuring is not a solo activity.
  2. Share credit widely.
  3. Ask for advice before you ask for resources.
  4. Underpromise and overdeliver- publicity triggers the corporate immune system.
  5. Do any job needed to make your dream work, regardless of your job description.
  6. Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
  7. Keep the best interests of the company and its customers in mind, especially when you have to bend the rules or circumvent the bureaucracy.
  8. Come to work each day willing to be fired.
  9. Be true to your goals, but be realistic about how to achieve them.
  10. Honor and educate your sponsors.

As we all know, it takes a team to innovate. It follows that to overcome the hurdles holding our innovation projects back, as an innovation practitioner, you must recruit allies to your cause, engage and help them understand why what you're proposing will be valuable to them personally as well as to the organization, and gather their expertise to inform the innovation project that you're trying to get through the organization.

How To (Successfully) Navigate The Politics Of Innovation?

The development manager, the product owner, the product manager, sales, support, and so on: you need to get everybody engaged and respect their expertise. In short, innovation is a mindset that must infuse your culture. And for your innovation to succeed, you must help others be successful.

“As soon as you try to score a goal – i.e., pursuing an innovation idea – the corporate immune system inevitably kicks in. Almost everyone in the organization tries to block you. And that’s probably because you did not engage them in this process”.

Yet building advocacy, getting support, thinking outside the job descriptions, creating a supportive environment, and setting up a cross-functional team is far from simple. The reality is that all of those people have their jobs and tasks to accomplish. So how to effectively build those teams to support new ideas and navigate the politics of innovation accordingly? John states that you can do this in three sequential steps:

1. Conducting Field Research

User Driven Innovation begins with field research whose main goal is understanding what pain points customers are experiencing and what major unmet needs the current product is not yet supporting. Field research involves:

  • Observing consumers using the product to achieve the results that are important to them.
  • Capturing their expectations in terms of actions they need to perform (and the information they need to know) to get that result.

2. Running A Listening Tour

It shouldn't just be the user experience person to go out and visit, listen, and observe customers. Everybody who can benefit from improving the user experience should be involved. As an individual, you have limited influence on your organization's direction. “As an innovator and UX professional, you can be a voice in the wilderness or the conductor of a chorus singing the same user-centric song”, says John.

To institute real change, you need to recruit allies. Running a listening tour in other functional areas may be right for you.

Ask your leaders for a list of key people in the functional areas, schedule one-on-one meetings, and listen to their challenges and concerns about what customers and users tell them. You'll soon discover that people are willing to share the insights and problems they collect daily.

3. Asking Leadership For Support

Only once you’ve gradually expanded your engagement with other functional areas can you try to go to the executive leadership team to get their blessing. By now, you should have the product owner, the Product Manager, the Support Manager, the Development Manager, and many other key figures all singing the same song and saying how this project will help them achieve the metrics they're accountable for. And that makes a huge difference.

If you don’t successfully navigate the politics of innovation, you won’t turn your idea into reality.

The Not Invented Here (NIH) Syndrome, risk aversion, protecting the status quo, and product-centricity are just some of the main blockers stopping your innovation project you’ll have to face. To overcome them, you need to set up a cross-functional team by recruiting and engaging allies in other functions long before asking the leadership for support.

Moving from an organization that doesn't really value innovation to one that considers it as part of the culture takes a gradual building of a wave of people engaged in innovation. And it’s up to innovators to influence and inspire others in the organization to deliver and support innovation.