It’s Monday morning, you’re settling into your office. As you sip your coffee and start scanning your email for the newest crisis, you hear a knock on the door. Turning, you see your boss standing there…

“Good morning! Wanted to talk to you about an exciting opportunity. As you know, our CEO wants us to be more innovative. The Executive Committee met last week and we decided you would be the perfect person to lead our new innovation team. We want you to really own this so let us know what you need to make things happen. Any questions?”

If you are like the hundreds of people I’ve worked with over the past 15 years who have found themselves in this situation (or something similar), you’re so surprised that your mind has gone blank.

Fear not! Here are the 4 things you need to know to get off to a strong start:

Question 1: Why now?

Yes, the CEO thinks the company needs to be more innovative, but what happened to spur the company to action? Did a new competitor enter the market? Is your company’s revenue declining? Did the CEO read a book that says innovation is important?

Getting to the “why” behind the request is critical because it gives you insight into how serious the commitment to innovation is. If your business results are suffering, competitors are taking share, or shareholders are demanding better results, odds are there is real commitment to doing something.

If the answer is that your CEO just read the latest books or article on the importance of innovation, then just smile and nod. Odds are, this is the executive whim of the month and will pass soon.

Question 2: What do we expect as a result of our new focus on innovation?

You never start a journey without a destination in mind (even if that destination shifts as you travel) so find out now what you are expected to deliver and when. Do you need to solicit a bunch of ideas from across the company in the next quarter? Launch a new product in the next year? Generate $13B in new revenues in the next 7 years (true story of an actual answer to this question)?

Whatever the answer is, don’t panic. You have time to figure out how to achieve it if it’s possible or propose an alternative if it’s not.

And, if your boss doesn’t have an answer find out who might and schedule meetings with them to ask this question

Question 3: What type of innovation do we want?

Google “types of innovation” and you’ll get 1.86M results in 0.53 seconds. To be fair, there are lots of very useful ways to classify innovation, especially as you start building a portfolio. But you’re not there yet.

Right now, you need to know what “innovation” means to the people asking for it. Does the company make products and it wants more innovative products OR does it want you to create services? Does the company sell to businesses and want to expand the types of businesses it sells to OR sell direct to consumers?

Understanding what “innovation” looks like will give you important insights into the challenge you’re facing and the resources and support you’ll need to be successful

Question 4: What resources are we dedicating to this?

I guarantee that when you ask this question, this will be the response, “Great question. Let us know what you need.”

DO NOT accept this!

Everyone has a limit to how much they’re willing to dedicate to innovation efforts, especially at the start. You need to find those limits now. The best way to do that is to give options:

  • “Great, is it fair to assume that I should dedicate 100% of my time to this? If so, who should I transfer my current workload to?” (you’ll most likely be told that No, you should not dedicate 100% of your time). “Ok, how many days per week should I spend on this”
  • “From what I’ve read, successful innovation efforts require fully dedicated teams. Is it fair to assume that, once we have a plan, we’ll dedicate 2–3 people to this full-time?”
  • “Of course we’ll need money to make things happen. How much is being set aside for this? Since we usually spend $X on new R&D projects, I assume we’ll allocate at least 10% of X on innovation projects.”

Trust me, if you get answers, they won’t feel like good ones and you will make people uncomfortable. But you need to ask these questions now so people realize that innovation is not about creating something out of nothing (you’re an innovator, not a magician) it’s a serious business investment that requires resources just like all the other investments the company makes.


You’re at the start of an incredible, crazy, terrifying, thrilling, maddening, exhilarating, mind-altering, life-changing journey as your company’s new head of innovation! With the answers to these 4 questions, you’re set-up for success and ready to take the next step — Finding Your Innovation Focus