You know that innovation is essential and why it is essential.

But do your colleagues share your views?

They probably don’t, which creates a huge stumbling block in your innovation efforts.

Just like it’s essential to agree on what “innovation” is, it’s also crucial to agree on why it’s important, what it must deliver, and by when.

This step may seem silly, after all, everyone knows that innovation is essential.  But skipping it will lead to misunderstanding, missed expectations, and, ultimately, the end of your innovation efforts as senior executives grow increasingly confused and frustrated by your activities and results (or lack thereof).

Don’t believe me?

Why companies innovate

Following (in no particular order) are the most common reasons senior executives give me for investing in innovation:

  • We need revenue growth
  • Shareholders expect us to say something about it
  • We risk losing our reputation as an innovative company
  • It’s hard to recruit and/or retain talent if we’re not seen as innovative
  • We need the PR
  • Our CEO attended an event/read a book/saw an article/had a conversation

What do you notice about the list?

Only one of the reasons, “we need revenue growth,” is tied to a business strategy and metric,

The other reasons focus either on managing perceptions or keeping people happy.

Of course, companies can invest in innovation for several reasons, but there is always one that is more important than the others.  One reason will ultimately become the metric against which innovation efforts are judged, and success or failure is decided.

Why you need to know Why

Imagine that you see a $100M growth gap (difference between what current offerings can deliver and future expectations) and view innovation as essential to closing that gap.  You present this insight to senior leaders and, now sharing your concern, they agree to invest $1M and two full-time employees (both internal transfers) for the next fiscal year.

You and your team hit the ground running.  Together, you set up a basic innovation process, send the team out to talk to customers and study the market with an eye to untapped opportunities, and build relationships across other functions to ensure you have support when you need it.

By the end of Year 1, your team identified several multi-million-dollar opportunities, prototyped and tested dozens of concepts, and built business cases for five new brands capable of closing the revenue gap. 

The progress is impressive, especially considering it happened within a context of higher-than-expected employee turnover, increasing competition from old and new companies, and an unreliable and unpredictable supply chain.

This is why you are crushed when senior leaders thank you for your efforts, say they’ll consider your recommendations, then cut your budget and re-assign your team.

As you and your team doggedly worked to close a revenue gap, senior leaders’ priorities changed to defending the current business and reputation, and they need news and new products now, not in three years.

Can innovation help with all that?  Of course!  But senior leaders didn’t realize that, and while you were busy working, they began implementing solutions to their most pressing pain points.

How to find the Why

Ask early.

At the start, have a conversation with key decision makers and stakeholders, especially the people who are allocating resources to your innovation endeavor.

Ask 3 questions:

  1. How do you define innovation?
  2. Why is innovation important to our business?
  3. What does innovation need to deliver, and by when?

You will likely get long, rambling answers to each question because (1) the answers seem self-evident, so the person you’re talking to never stopped to collect and clarify their thoughts before you asked these questions, and (2) long answers keep options open.

Ask follow-up questions that narrow down the options (you can’t be and do everything, and you certainly don’t have the resources to try!)

  • If you had to pick 2-3 as the most important, what would you pick?
  • If you had 100 chips to allocate across (give the list of items), how would you distribute them?
  • If I could only do two things, what would they be? 

Don’t force them to pick one thing, the fear of being wrong will overwhelm them, and they won’t do it.  But do force them to prioritize because, in reality, not everything is equally important.

Ask often.

The world and your business change constantly, so don’t assume that last quarter’s priority is this quarter’s.  At least once a quarter, ask your three questions again:

  1. How do you define innovation?
  2. When we last spoke, you said these 1-3 things were most important.  Is that still the case?
  3. When we last spoke, you said that innovation needs to deliver X by Y.  Is that still the case?

The answers to each of these questions will tell you whether you’re working on the right types of innovation capable of delivering needed results within the required timeframe.  If you are, great!  If you aren’t, take the time to re-align by resetting expectations or refocusing your work.

Why not?

Most of us don’t ask these questions. 

We’re too excited by our new mandate to finally do something new.  We’re afraid that if we ask too many questions, our luck will evaporate, and we’ll lose our mandate.   We’re worried that if we ask again, we’ll experience executive whiplash – expectations that change so rapidly that real progress can’t be made, and results are never delivered.

But fear creates the opportunity to be brave, and by asking these questions early and often, you get information that helps you make better decisions about your work and career.

So why not ask why?