Corporate innovation is hard because it represents the unknown and uncertainty- and that's dangerous for leaders who have built their careers on certainty.

They have managed to climb up to great heights and responsibilities by doing the things that they said that they were going to do for certain. The uncertainty that comes with innovation leads to all kinds of objections, fundamentally questioning the value of innovation.

We see that playing out in setting unrealistic targets, putting in place unsupportive processes, and applying unfit funding and governance mechanisms. In trying to address those items or when we leave them unchecked, we end up with innovation theatre (and a lot of Powerpoint slides). The problem with innovation theatre is that you don't actually make products. You just create fallacy ideas that never create or drive a business impact and never go to market.

So, there is a significant divide between where we set out to go and where we actually are; the intention vs capability gap. That divide in the middle is full of intention, culture, language, rituals, values, expectations, and relationships. These elements divide the corporate “tribe” and to leapfrog that divide, to cross that bridge it starts with how innovators act, speak and think about their role.

So, what do we do about it? How might we start to do things differently?

At our recent Innov8rs London conference, Nick Tate, VP Digital Innovation and Head of NEXT – GSK Consumer Healthcare, addressed these questions and discussed why corporate innovation isn’t about ideas, or technologies, or agile processes but sociology and psychology.

It’s All About Trust

Innovation doesn’t start with a framework or governance procedure. Innovation begins with how we as innovators think about one another, how we think about relationships, and how we help people include uncertainty in their day-to-day job. “Of course, service maps and value frameworks are important, but not as important as the fundamentals of human relationships in setting leaders up for success”, says Nick.

So, how can we do that?

In corporations, we're all part of a tribe. And tribes must innovate, otherwise they die. By default, any tribe innovates, communicates, reacts, and responds through trust. And the direct consequences of trust are stronger relationships, greater transparency, better information, better decisions, growth, and survival.

“We can have the best data in the world, but if we don't understand or trust where the data comes from, how are we going to move people into a different space?”

Ultimately, setting up leadership for successful disruptive innovation is all about fostering and creating two-way trust.

Four Drivers Of Trust: Consistency, Compassion, Communication, And Competency

Trust is fundamental in innovation and in driving change. And it’s enabled by four facets: consistency, compassion, communication, and competency.

“The more disruptive the endeavor, the deeper the potential divide, the stronger the trust needs to be”.

1. Consistency

Consistency is defined as a quality of always behaving the same way or having the same opinions. And to do that, you have to first and foremost resist your inner magpie. We're innovators, and we get very excited about new things- and that's amazing! But leaders want facts, they want to understand what happens when you close the innovation loop. Setting up new projects and never having a return journey doesn’t equate to consistency.

Consistency also means valuing and measuring the same things over and over again. That may sound really trite, “but how many of us have used slightly different metrics for slightly different things because it was a slightly different project?”, asks Nick. Only if and when you consistently measure and value frameworks can you have a broad sense of relative value and consequently make data-driven decisions.

Lastly, consistency has a part of storytelling in it. A consistent story of why you're doing it, what you're doing, and how you're doing it firmly helps you build trust.

2. Compassion

The second area of trust is compassion, which is framed as a strong feeling of sympathy for people or animals who are suffering and a desire to help them. Typically a lot is said about using centered design, putting people at the heart of it, and not designing things for yourself. Yet no one ever does all of that for leaders.

Like all other employees, leaders have other things on their minds. And so, not grounding them into why they're in the meeting, or what you're trying to achieve, or just getting a sense of their feedback on what's important to them, in general, equals losing massive opportunities to build trust.

The second element of compassion is playing to people's strengths and not their weaknesses. Asking leaders the burning questions on our minds doesn’t necessarily set them up for success. And if you keep asking them awkward questions, don't be surprised when they give you vague answers or if they just say “no”. We need to build them up to be the best type of leaders and advisors. We need to ask them the right questions.

3. Communication

Communication is about transmitting or exchanging information, knowledge, or ideas. And Nick thinks that communication eventually boils down to language, which is essential because it drives behaviors and expectations.

But language also amplifies our nervousness in not knowing all the answers yet, leading to paranoia and a lack of trust. If you're supposed to deliver a new product pipeline and you keep saying that you don't know something, or that it's too early, or that you haven't got enough information, that's a huge problem. So, instead of spending all your time telling people what you haven't discovered yet, tell them what you have.

It’s all about rephrasing things. Learn to present your project by saying, "the data is early, but over the course of many experiments, we've understood ‘these things’ to be true. And signals keep coming up over and over again with the same information”. This completely different way of presenting allows you to take a step back and have a conversation around positive data and makes people see you as innovation leaders who actually know what they're talking about.

The second area of communication is speaking in the language of the business. Business talks about market access, customer demand, gross margin, and cost per acquisition. Yet we often don't speak the language of the business- and Buzzword Bingo around innovation is likely to drive meaningless conversations. We tend to speak the language of management consultancies, which is super interesting and valuable for one aspect. But leaders want a concise discussion around what you know.

And if you spend more time explaining what you mean by disruption and less time talking about the audience that you're going after, the value proposition, what issue you're actually trying to solve, and what data you have to support that, there's a significant problem.

Eventually, you’re all on the same side. Leaders want you to win because if you win, they win. Yet too often, innovators talk about the existential threat impacting the business. And if you keep doing that, what you then personify is an existential threat, which makes leaders very nervous- you're actually embodying all of their fears. To overcome this, frame a discussion around opportunities and use clear, focused language again.

4. Competency

Competency is about the ability to do something well. To accomplish that, you should be as excited about the pipes as the idea. After you've gotten past the ‘why’ we're doing innovation in the first place, the question leaders ask is how to put it into practice. Often they spend a lot of time talking about how we can't do it.

Leaders look at the business today as the assets they have and the ability to go to market. And they rely on those things as the way that they can do business now. It follows that they'll look at a new operating model, or a new route to market, or a new capability, not as a growth opportunity but as a cost center; something that is going to be too expensive and too long to do. And that kills your idea.

You need to do the “running upstairs” before they tell you how hard it is. You need to be obsessed with the integration points and the tech stack, you need to understand the capabilities that you might require on board and then test them to see if they actually work, versus just having a tech architecture that the majority of people in the company don't really understand.

“Leaders care about how things are going to happen beyond a great headline, beyond a wonderful mockup. And if we're going to set up leaders and drive trust and credibility, going from ‘we've got an idea’ to ‘we know exactly where the pitfalls are and what needs to be true for it to happen’ is a bit tricky, but super important”.

The last component of competency is celebrating iterations and progress in real-time. Don't be scared to share early data. If you don't do that, you're not showing tangible proof points that prove delivery and success. Leaders don't expect to go to a billion-dollar business overnight- it's just not realistic. But what they do want to see is those small increments. Consistently going on and talking about the competency you've got in delivering what you said you would do and celebrating that team success is incredibly important in building trust.

In summary

Setting leaders up for success with disruptive innovation is all about building two-way trust. That trust is enabled by consistency, compassion, communication, and competency:

  • To be consistent, resist your inner magpie, value and measure the same things repeatedly, and have a consistent story about why you're doing what you're doing.
  • Be compassionate. Do never forget to play to leaders’ strengths and not their weaknesses: they're remarkable humans, they've done incredible things, but they need to be positioned and set up for success in the right way to benefit you and them alike.
  • Tell them what you do know and do that in a way they understand- don't get pulled into innovation buzzword bingo. Be concise in your storytelling, think really clearly about what you're trying to do, why it's essential for them, and what you're going to do next. You're all on the same side: you're on that business trying to drive growth in the same way they are.
  • And the last thing is around competency. Get excited about the pipes and celebrate iterations and progress in real-time.

As innovators, we must innovate our relationships as much as our products. We need to think about how we can become those people who just engender trust in our actions. If we do this, we can help our leaders make better decisions, close that divide between them and us, and ultimately, achieve the success we aim for.