These days, it’s hard to find a CEO who wouldn’t publicly claim how important innovation is.

The trick is that in those statements, “innovation” is used as a label for both lofty future ambitions to disrupt industries, to digitizing current operations, and everything in between. And then internally, “innovation” is all too often associated with fun activities and fancy brainstorming - too far out there, and not tied to the core business’ planning cycles and incentive schemes, and as such, optional.

If you are responsible for leading or “innovation” in your organization, that brings up many questions.

Will innovation continue to be (or, in some organization: become) a separate function, or will it be integrated in other functions and core business operations, or will we see setups combining both? And for each of those possible structures, what will be the scope and mandate- for example; do we focus on “breakthrough”, and leave “the H1-stuff” to the business? Either way, how will success be measured?

Then, what does this all mean for you as an innovation professional? Across the board, in most organizations there’s no career path in innovation. In fact, far too often innovation is still a risky step that could easily derail your career. Will that change in the next few years? Beyond an innovation role, how can you still leverage your innovation skill and mindset in other functions?

During our recent Innov8rs Connect on Careers & Personal Development we discussed these questions (and more) with corporate innovation veterans John Metselaar, Gina O'Connor, Andrea Kates, and Anthony Ferrier. Below you'll find a summary of the conversation (and if you'd like to watch the full session recording "The Evolution of the Corporate Innovation Function (And What That Means For Your Career)", go here).

Does innovation require a dedicated function?

The first question we explored is whether innovation requires a dedicated function within an organization. And different perspectives emerged.

Innovation should be a responsibility of the entire organization, not just one entity.

Over John's career working with major companies such as Proctor and Gamble, innovation has always been at the forefront of the business. Innovation has been an integral part of the company's success and is now a foundational piece of its corporate culture. After seeing the success and growth of P&G, John believes that innovation should not be delegated to a particular entity or function within the organization, but rather a company-wide adaptation.

Specific roles are needed within an organization to spearhead innovation.

Gina agrees that innovation should be at the core of an organization. However, having a department or function that primarily looks after innovation is excellent for executing innovative thoughts and ideas. Without someone looking specifically at innovation to create new streams of growth, it will simply not succeed in the long run, and organizations will get stuck in the way they are currently operating.

A champion is needed to execute innovative ideas.

Andrea begins by addressing how the role of innovation has changed: a few years ago, innovation used to be about finding new ideas, whereas now, it is not about a lack of ideas but a lack of execution of these new ideas. The current challenges stem from organizations not having siloed departments responsible for growth and innovation, which leads to a lack of execution. Creating harmonies between innovative ideas and the habits that organizations develop is where the true value lies, and this comes from sole entities being primarily responsible for innovation.

There must be a “champion”, a function with two primary and urgent focuses: having a future mindset, and understanding the trends of emergence science to act on them.

If innovation is not already engrained, a single entity is needed to ensure the success of innovation.

Anthony also believes that having a separate function within an organization is paramount to properly achieving innovation. If a company or organization does not have a longstanding culture of innovation, it will not successfully innovate without a function of the organization responsible for that.

He claims that the main reason innovation must be structured as a function is to help navigate shifting environments, to have some forward-looking perspectives on how an organization will respond beyond a particular set of needs. Innovation leaders really need to step up and take a role as part of these shifting environments.

What is the definition of innovation in this context?

It’s of course important to clarify what we mean when we talk about “innovation”. While this may seem like a straightforward question, defining innovation, also within an organization, can be complicated.

Innovation is a broad field and should be defined with a broad lens.

Anthony states that the best way to describe innovation is through a general and wide lens. Since innovation contains many aspects and variables, it has a large scope by definition. And having a broad definition of innovation, allows for more impact over time.

Anthony also believes that the concept of “impact” is very important in the definition. Too often, innovation leaders are taking an “activity perspective” and talk about how great they're doing, and because they're doing all these activities. But they don't talk about the impact. However, while the definition of innovation may be broad, but the roles that are played in carrying it forward must be very specific.

Innovation is nothing if there is no activation.

Andrea agrees that innovation is about taking action, rather than simply creating ideas and discussion. And she uses the term "activate" to discuss what it means to be truly innovative. Andrea also acknowledges that we must have individuals envisioning, expanding, and engaging in the innovation ecosystem, but innovation can often fall flat if there is no entity steering the ship and activating it.

A clear definition of what innovation means is paramount.

Gina addresses Anthony's idea of defining innovation with a broad stroke. Instead, Gina believes it is essential to define innovation within that organization clearly. Instead of everyone interchangeably using the term innovation, organizations should set clear guidelines. These guidelines will minimize confusion and lead to higher chances of adopting an innovation culture.

And companies usually have multiple levels of “innovativeness” that should be managed differently: incremental, evolutionary, and breakthrough.

Gina outlines that organizations that break down their various stages of innovation often find higher levels of success.

Suppose innovation is not clearly defined, and the individual or entity is not made clear to spearhead this innovation is not made clear. In that case, things can easily get mixed up, which leads to antibody problems and politics within organizations. Gina defines innovation as a discipline that brings creative new ideas and discoveries, including novel technologies, into commercial reality to create new streams of business for the company.

Innovation must include members from all departments in an organization.

One of the primary things that Andrea illuminates is the contrast between how innovation used to work, and how it now works. Andrea mentions that innovation in organizations used to be viewed through a different lens — that only the leaders could participate in innovation. Now, innovation can happen from all departments, roles, and levels in the company.

Innovation converts knowledge and inspiration into new value.

According to John, there is one big misconception: innovation is not only about creativity. Instead, innovation is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Innovation is about converting knowledge and inspiration into new value. And conversion is the most crucial part all the way from ideation into commercialization.

He mentions that corporations need an ambidextrous leadership able to perform and transform, explore and exploit. But ambidexterity is hard to reach: core business tends to gravitate around incremental innovation. As such, the pull is towards exploitation.

What have you seen working in organizing and structuring innovation efforts?

There is of course no single blueprint that works all the time, yet a lot can be learned from what different organizational structures are being used by others.

Idea-receiving groups branch into innovative leaders for each department.

One interesting thing Gina witnessed was the formation of idea-receiving groups. These are teams directly responsible for managing all the innovative ideas presented to the organization. These groups slowly branch off to all areas of the organization. They lead innovative conversations and spread expertise to different departments.

Commitment narratives for the individual lead to successful innovation.

Andrea has seen something called “commitment narratives” find tremendous success for organizations. A commitment narrative is a story that an organization tells its employees about how it intends to behave in the future. This narrative needs to be believable, and it needs to be something employees can get behind and rally around.

Andrea clarifies that the commitment narrative is different for everyone within the organization. A good leader will not force their way on the employees, but a good leader will find the employee's "why" and allow them to act based on their values. A commitment narrative can help galvanize employee support for innovation initiatives when done correctly.

How will innovation impact different roles within an organization? What does this mean for careers?

These thoughts lead to the final question. Is “innovation” a generalist role? Or will it need to be a specific role within an organization?

All of us need to be innovation-oriented- but we still need dedicated entities.

Early in her career, Gina has looked back at the marketing history in companies. She found that in the 1930s, the marketing function was composed only of sales. Today, the marketing function has become very sophisticated: chief marketing officer, PR, market research, digital analytics, sales, product management. And despite certain people holding roles in the marketing function per se, everyone in the company is expected to be customer-oriented.

Gina believes that what we have witnessed with the marketing function is not far from what is going to look like with innovation. Every part of an organization needs to be innovation-oriented. No matter the position, role, or rank, all members must be thinking about and willing to participate in innovation.

However, on the transformational innovation side, there must be a dedicated entity or group within the organization that has the primary role of implementing these new innovative approaches. Because ambidexterity is difficult.

The way Gina puts it is, "The urgent outweighs the important" every time in each of our jobs. And if your “urgent” is not creating the future, it will be postponed, and nobody will create the future.

As such, Gina believes that specialist roles will emerge with people who put the importance of innovation first, and that is specialists whose main job is innovation.

Innovation is the only job of the future.

According to Andrea, innovation is the only “job” of the future. Otherwise, tomorrow will be the same as today and yesterday.

She has identified three disrupting roles and abilities that today are sorely understaffed but that companies will be in dire need of in the foreseeable future: interpreter of emergence – people who can see what's coming and translate innovation for the company itself; internal street cred – people who can build their credibility with customers; perpetual refresh – people who can perpetually figure out what leaders and the organization need to get really good at innovation.

Dramatic disruptors promote innovation.

John agrees that disruptors, the talented “rebels”, foster innovation. As such, the job of innovation leaders becomes to bring in disruptors and nurture a culture of creativity, curiosity, and learning that these disruptors need in order to be effective in their efforts.

Fundamentally, he states that innovation requires all leaders across the company to have a growth mindset, show authenticity and vulnerability, and create psychological safety within the organization.

Whilst innovation must be at the core of any organization’s strategy and culture, having a separate yet integrated innovation function is crucial.

Without a team looking specifically at creating new streams of growth, there’s no chance of succeeding in the long run. The innovation function at its core is responsible for translating market trends into concepts and then turning only validated ideas into new businesses that can be scaled. Besides, the innovation function also plays a role in creating the culture and building the capabilities to enable innovation company-wide.

Like other functions have evolved, so is the innovation function evolving. And for sure, that brings great opportunities for everyone keen to pursue a career in innovation.