Like Rodney Dangerfield’s character, innovators often get very little respect. Even noted innovation consultants, like yours truly, have learned to weather a questioning glance when we admit that we work to promote innovation. Usually, that’s followed up with a question that can best be paraphrased as: “That’s a real job?”
Yes, Dorothy, innovation is a real job, an often thankless, lonely and neglected job, until someone in the organization really, really needs new products or new revenue. And for that brief, shining moment, innovation moves to the fore. The real question we need to ask ourselves is: why isn’t innovation a respected skill? Why do Chief Financial Officers or Chief Marketing Officers seem to feel no reason to justify their existence or validity, while anyone who wants to create innovative new ideas must first admit that, yes, innovation is not a real “role” or “job”, but will be tolerated in a pinch? Why is a financial or accounting role deemed important, necessary, even critical to a corporation, while innovation is considered frivolous, or at best a temporary position?
There are several reasons that innovators don’t receive the respect they deserve. The first is based on experience, the second on expectation and the third is based on results. Let’s break down why innovators, and innovation, doesn’t get any respect, and look at the options for creating the environment for respect.
In the first instance, innovation doesn’t get any respect because many people have no experience with true innovation work. Since we are typically suspicious of any topic or body of knowledge that we have little experience with, innovation is held in contempt until it can prove its value. Unfortunately, many people attempt to “innovate” half-heartedly or with little preparation and no previous experience, so innovation doesn’t produce the usually outsized goals the team has. Strange to think that a tool, attempted once, with little preparation and no previous experience, doesn’t produce the iPod of your industry, but that’s the way it often works. Most of us, for example, wouldn’t agree to close the books on a quarter, swapping jobs with the CFO, or wouldn’t agree to lead a significant new marketing campaign, swapping jobs with the lead marketing person, yet many agree to jump right in and lead an innovation effort with no experience, no training and few trusted guides. Isn’t leading an innovation effort to create valuable new products and services at least as important as getting the (backward looking) financials correct? In the end, most teams don’t have experience, and don’t respect the work or body of knowledge that supports innovation.
The second reason that innovation doesn’t get any respect is because of the expectations of failure. In any other function in the business, failure is tantamount to abdication of duties. If the quarterly closings don’t “tic and tie” to the penny and within a penny a share of the projected revenues and profits, the CFO has “failed”. There are real penalties for getting it wrong. Where innovation is concerned, your team will definitely fail. After all, noted innovation financiers, also known as venture capitalists, are hopeful of betting correctly on one or two of ten investments, knowing that the majority of their investments will return nothing. Further, since many teams attempt innovation without prior knowledge, training or experience (see paragraph above), the expectations of many teams are that innovation won’t succeed in developing an excellent idea, or that even if a great idea is generated, it won’t be accepted or implemented by the company. This is almost learned helplessness in action!
The third reason innovation lacks respect is in the results of the effort. As mentioned previously, even strong ideas must cross the chasm from concept to new product or service, and that’s a very large chasm to cross internally. Development teams have more work than they can handle with existing products and services, never mind new and potentially risky products. Even if the idea can be translated into a new product or service, it may not succeed in the marketplace. The opportunity window is open only briefly, and time and competitors, or market conditions, may shift.
We innovators need to demonstrate that innovation isn’t frivolous, isn’t doomed to failure and isn’t a last-gasp attempt at differentiation. Rather, innovation should be a consistent, important capability that generates and commercializes new products and services that drive new revenue, and is supported by internal disciplines and people trained to the work. Rather than hang our heads and smile sheepishly when people suggest that innovation is a side-show, we need to demonstrate that innovation is as vital to an organization as any “relevant” or trusted capability, like finance or engineering.
Respect must be earned, and innovation will earn its respect when it demonstrates its importance and relevance to an organization’s growth and success. As long as innovation is used to respond to desperate situations by teams who are unwilling and unprepared, the results will not emphasize the value or importance of innovation. We innovators must demonstrate that innovation is CENTRAL to the success of a firm, and gain as much credence within a firm as the finance or accounting teams. Then, and only then, will we have the respect that we need, and that we are due. Respect will be paid on the day that the CFO’s job is to count all the profits and revenue that innovation creates, and the CMO’s job will be to create more press and awareness about your firm’s innovation efforts.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.