Leading Innovation to Success

by Alli Polin on December 3, 2013

we love innovation

We love innovation.  We think it’s the most gosh-darn important and super-sexy thing in the world.  We want it and we want it now but oh, we’re not going to fund it fully until we absolutely know that it can work.  Did I mention we kind of like the way things are today?  ~ Anonymous Leader in Almost Any Org

I was a VP of Innovation for a Fortune 500 company and I saw first hand the tension between fixing what’s broken right now and innovating for the future.  Unfortunately, fear, lack of understanding and pride in today’s success often makes innovation simply a buzz word and not a business practice in motion.  A visionary client of mine knows the barriers to innovation all too well.  It’s lonely, challenging and a hard place to be, but there is no glimmer of giving up – just pushing forward because it matters.  While others see puzzle pieces, my client sees how they fit together and it’s an amazing vision.

I know all too well that there are many reasons why innovations fail.  My client and I recently discussed how to get others behind this innovation and assessed progress in six key areas.

six keys to successful innovation

Take an Honest View

It’s easy to get caught up in a great idea but when you’re eating, sleeping, breathing that idea for weeks and months on end it’s also easy to lose perspective.  Is that great idea an innovation, passion project, incremental improvement, just adding a little spice to the status quo?  Take the time to be honest with yourself before pushing forward an innovation that’s unwelcome at worst and unappreciated at best.

Ask yourself:

  1. Is the value really there?
  2. Is the pain of change worth the future state?
  3. If I give up now, what’s the short term and long term cost to the business?

Recognize Jealousy

There are always loud naysayers when people try to push the status quo and create something totally new.  You may hear things like:

  • It’s too hard.
  • Nobody could make that work.
  • We have a lot of other things to do – do we really have time to waste under the umbrella of innovation?

All of those comments are jealousy wrapped up in negativity.  It’s like little kids that say “I didn’t want to be in it anyway” when they’re not picked for the part they wanted in the school show.

Acknowledge Fear

Fear stops people and organizations in their tracks all the time.  Hello!  The status quo is called the comfort zone because it’s comfortable. When you’re talking about innovation, acknowledge the fear that’s present instead of tossing it aside.  Acknowledge that what’s happening today is working (if it is) and talk openly about how hard it can be to make the leap to something new – especially when nobody is asking for it (because they don’t even know that they want it… yet).

Fear of innovation doesn’t fundamentally change the value. (Click to Tweet)

Find champions

As a single voice in the mix, it’s tough to convince others that your innovation will be valuable – especially if there will be the pain of transition in the process.

Stop waving the flag of innovation alone and ask others to join you.  Ask not only for their active support, but also what you need and openly discuss what may be in their way.  Not everyone is going to jump on board but that’s not a sign to give up – it’s  sign to talk to more people, have more discussions, and build more relationships.  If you’ve taken an honest view, your champions are out there.

Show Value

There is a time to stop talking about your great vision and put it in action even on a small scale.  People can’t always wrap their head around concepts but they can around reality.  Show them how it works and let them get their hands dirty with your working models.  Put it into action, get feedback, collect results, share real data and experience, and speak in the present tense – “it will” vs “it is.”

Build a Compelling Story

People connect with stories more than numbers, ideas, technical specs or detailed charts.  Wrap the future up in a compelling story and get really, really good at telling it.  Tell a story about people, why it matters, today’s challenges and what the new world will look and feel like.  Make it real, make it personal and be prepared to make it come true.

In the end, like my client, your idea may be brilliant but unfortunately, that will not make adoption easy.  Stay focused on your why, your honest view, and don’t give up.  Take every challenge as an opportunity to challenge your own thinking, get clearer and make adjustments.

Don’t forget: Every failure, when coupled with learning, leads to future success. (Click to Tweet)

What’s your advice?  How have you effectively overcome barriers to the adoption of innovation?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Lalita Raman December 3, 2013 at 5:58 am

Good points Alli. Loved every one of them. Yes, the why is what keeps me going through every challenge in the transition that I’m still going through :).


Alli Polin December 3, 2013 at 8:15 am

Lalita – Our “why” is an anchor that keeps us connected despite the many challenges that are thrown at us. Thanks so much for your feedback and sharing!


Joy Guthrie December 3, 2013 at 8:44 am

Good post, Alli. You strip off the “rose-colored glasses” and show that innovation can be difficult. Thanks for sharing.


Alli Polin December 3, 2013 at 9:13 am

Innovation can be exciting, fun, challenging, frustrating and oh-so-many other things but rarely is it easy. Many thanks, Joy!


Karen Jolly December 3, 2013 at 10:14 am

I loved your conclusion on this Alli – “focus on the why” and “build a compelling story.” People get behind an idea when they can see and feel the benefits. I think of Steve Jobs and how he could get everyone excited about a new Apple product, not because he told us the size of the processor, or the specs of the new A-something chip inside… instead he told us how that product would change our world, make our life easier, how fun it would be. He made us see the “why” of that product – why we would want it and why we had to have it.

Your principles here can be applied to many other areas of our life as well. I think of our desires/goals and that they become so much more real to us when we think of the “why” – the reasons why we want to accomplish that goal. It keeps us dedicated so we won’t give up.

Thank you Alli – great food for thought this morning!


Alli Polin December 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Great example, Karen! It’s like when I went to buy my first car and the guy showed me under the hood. Uh – who cares?! (ok, maybe someone cares, just not me) I love the stories – the woman who was just starting her own business and needed a car she could count on to zip around the city and get where she needs to go… Now I’m listening!

I’m with you on application beyond the office too. Clarity around our goals and thinking through obstacles with strategies to knock them out makes a huge difference.

Thanks so much for your comment – you really added a lot to the conversation!


Jon Mertz December 3, 2013 at 10:58 am

Having the right culture in place to support innovation is essential. When innovation is central, innovation is evident in the organization’s practices and leadership. Just recently, I read how P&G undertook an innovation culture and approach. Leadership set the priority and then put the training and support in place to empower it. Innovation flourished.

Great post, Alli. Puts a good framework around viewing and leading innovation. Jon


Alli Polin December 3, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I’m going to do some reading on what P&G did to make that happen. Thanks, Jon! When I was hired as the VP of Innovation, the company had the most senior leaders behind it all the way but that’s where the cascade stopped. Training and empowerment are two cornerstones.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights, Jon!


Terri Klass December 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

When moving forward on an innovative idea we may have, it is so important to be as clear as possible when sharing its value. I have been part of roll-outs that fail because the reasons behind the innovation were never fully discussed or put up for any type of questioning. It is hard to digest a change when we don’t see its true value.
And I love the idea of finding champions! In any organization it is virtually impossible to manage a change without a fan club behind you. Those fans become critical ambassadors for the new concepts.
Thanks for a great share on innovation, Alli! Really great ideas to think about!


Alli Polin December 5, 2013 at 3:30 am

I agree, Terri – when we don’t understand the value, why change? Especially if things seem fine the way that they are. It’s even a harder challenge when the innovation isn’t just a shift but a potentially radical solution. The volume on the resistance can be exponentially higher.

We ALL need a fan club 🙂 Honestly, we can’t do it all alone and champions help us create awareness and support in ways that is impossible for us to do alone.

Always appreciate when you share your experience and insights! Thanks so much, Terri!


Karin Hurt December 5, 2013 at 11:19 pm

Alli, terrific post. My advice, stakeholder and get others excited for your idea. Ask them to bust holes in your argument and then ask them to help you fix it. There’s nothing more exciting thatn working on something everyone else thought couldn’t be done… others will want to join in.


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