“You’re right. It’s counter-intuitive but correct. Good job!”

I wish I could take back those words.  Not just because they’re wrong, but because they were the beginning of the end of an innovation team with incredible talent and promise.

How it Began

It was year 2 for the business’ innovation strategy but the first year that a full-time team was in place.  The first year team, a consulting firm, did great work building a foundation of deep stakeholder and market insights and identifying several potential areas for new businesses and business models. 

Based on the strength of the work, the BU president invested in building a team of 3 full-time employees – one transferred from another part of the organization, the other two were new hires.  With the team in place, the President gave them two objectives:

  1. Design, build, and test a new services business for one of the market opportunities
  2. Establish the process, governance, and metrics for the innovation team.

The team worked hard for six months.  They focused mainly on building the new services business, and even took over another new business, still in the prototyping phase, that was floundering despite early promise.  The Architecture work became an afterthought, squeezed out by other priorities.

That’s why the Director of Innovation asked for help.  She didn’t have time, but it was still a priority.

About a month into our work, it was time to present the team’s progress to the BU president. The meeting had been on his calendar for several months and we had several conversations in which we previewed the content, and he expressed his eagerness to learn more.

Then he cancelled.

The Call

After the President called my client to cancel the update meeting, she called me.  Our conversation went something like this.:

Client: Some things have come up in the core business and the quarter isn’t coming in as strong as expected.  The core teams need more of his time so he asked if we could cancel this quarter’s meeting and just meet next quarter.  He said he’s confident we’re doing the right things and we should just keep going and let him know if we need anything. 

Me: Ok.  Is next quarter’s meeting on the books or do we need to schedule it?

Client: It’s already scheduled.  Honestly, I told him that he’s doing exactly the right thing.  He needs to focus on the core business because if it’s not healthy we won’t have the resources to do what we need to do. 

Me: You’re right.  It’s counter-intuitive (to tell someone to ignore you) but correct.  Good job!

What I did wrong

  1. I didn’t ask whether this cancellation as a one-off or a habit.  If I had asked, I would have learned that he cancelled every meeting, citing an emergency in the core business.  As a result, the only updates he received were quick progress update emails.  And he never responded.
  2. I didn’t push for a meeting before next quarter.  Things come up and meetings need to be postponed or cancelled.  That’s reality.  But executives always find time for priority efforts and are rarely comfortable going 3-4 months without a discussing key issues.
  3. I didn’t suggest a 1:1 to discuss, and likely change, strategy.  “I don’t have time” means “it’s not a priority.”  So, if the BU President really didn’t have 1 hour every 3 months to work with the innovation team, then innovation, as it was currently scoped, clearly wasn’t a priority.

What you can do right

  1. Expect engagement.  Executives make time for things that are important (and that they’re measured on).  Everything else is a “passion project.”  If innovation is key to growing tomorrow’s business, then it’s as important as the activities that sustain today’s business.  Be it clear that you’re willing to be flexible but, if your boss wants results, you need your boss to actively engage with innovation on a frequent and regular basis.
  2. Work together to figure out how to work together.  In the beginning, it made sense to for the Innovation team and BU President to meet for half a day every quarter.  As time went one, it became clear that wasn’t practical.  So instead of holding tight to the original plan, we should have acknowledged that things weren’t working and agreed on a different approach that meets everyone’s needs (and worked with our schedules)
  3. Have the hard conversation.  If, despite your best efforts, you still can’t get executives to engage, it’s time to ask the hard questions – “Is what we are working on a priority?  Do we need to change our focus?  Do we need to disband?”  No one likes this conversation.  You won’t like it because it could mean the end of the team and your role.  The executive doesn’t like it because it means that their efforts and investments in innovation failed.  But the same philosophy that applies to new ideas and businesses also applies to innovation teams and efforts – learn fast so you can kill things quickly and move on to the next big thing.

How it ended

The next quarter, a meeting did happen.  The innovation team presented their work and the BU President approved funding to develop and test two new business ideas.

Six months later, the company re-organized and a new President took over.

Six months after that, the innovation team was disbanded.  The two new hires left the company, the person who transferred in, transferred back out to another part of the organization.

It’s possible that this fate was inevitable, that no matter how much we engaged with the first president, that we still would have been shut down by the second president.

It’s also possible that one more question, one more conversation, one more pivot could have changed everything.