The Classic Mismatch: Expectations for Innovation from Different Levels in the Organization

Business leaders and consultants have been talking about the importance of working across functions to improve innovation performance, for decades. But lack of alignment across levels of the organization is just as problematic for innovation, if not more so. These disconnects are not caused by conflicting expertise or business unit priorities, but by entirely different expectations for innovation. If you’re responsible for growth from innovation, chances are you’re stuck in the middle of this classic clash. 

The CEO talks about the need for transformational innovation and sets ambitious growth targets. But she expects the linear progress, quick results, and certainty she gets from other functions.

The Innovation Leader hears those ambitious targets and expects the CEO to be prepared for the exploration and risk-taking they imply. He expects The Team to follow suit—to embrace uncertainty and formulate new processes when the old ones are too restrictive.

The Team is a product of the broader culture of your organization. In the absence of a clear message and incentives to the contrary, they’ll pick up on what the CEO typically values and do exactly that.

There are, of course, exceptions to where these typical perspectives live in an organization—maybe your leadership are the creative visionary types, and it falls to you to manage risk. Regardless, the problem lies in the tension between expectations and how that tension manifests.

Different expectations for innovation at different levels can result in constant battles.

Without better alignment of expectations across levels, you can expect ongoing battles about:

  • Personnel. Who are the right people for innovation projects? Do they work here already or do we need to look outside? What’s the right mix of skills on a given team? What are the right goals and incentives?
  • Process. What sort of methods should we use? What happens first? What are the gates?
  • Time Horizons. What’s a reasonable timeframe for a given project? When should we expect to hear recommendations? What’s the time to market?
  • Results. What does success look like? What’s the criteria for approval? How will my performance be measured?

You’d answer every one of those questions differently, depending on which of the above perspectives you have. NB: these conflicts will be exacerbated for front-end projects (because they’re the least certain) and potentially disruptive portfolios (because they feel the most threatening).

Conversations about the right metrics can act as a forcing function for alignment.

You might think resolving these sorts of differences require trainings or long philosophical debates, but there’s a more straightforward solution. Talk about metrics with your leadership and team, early and often. I say “early” because it’s important to set expectations at the outset. Innovation managers sometimes put off establishing metrics, saying “we’ve just got to get started!” But if stakeholders are asking about measures of progress and impact, you’ve waited too long.

As someone charged with driving growth through innovation, you’re the best person to lead that conversation. It’s not enough to say that innovation, broadly, or a transformational portfolio should be treated differently. Instead, explain what’s different about your work or context, and the risks of applying traditional metrics. Be specific about the types of metrics that should be used instead. Those will depend on your unique context, but you may want to emphasize measures of learning (e.g., those generated by rating scales or innovation accounting) and de-emphasize time and predictability metrics.  We help clients gain this internal alignment in a lunch and learn that covers the basics of innovation measurement, common pitfalls, and how to choose the right metrics for a given portfolio type/mix.

None of this is to say you can design a measurement system in a single meeting. But, using metrics to ground the conversation, you can get on the same page with your leadership and team faster than you might think.

If you want to get better aligned with your leadership and/or team,

  • Download our Guide to Measuring Your Innovation Portfolio. Among many other topics, it covers understanding your stakeholders (page 38), measuring learning in the innovation context (pages 18-19), and measuring uncertain outcomes (20-22).
  • Email me: I’m happy to have a quick call about how to frame and manage a conversation to align expectations.

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