Traveling unchartered innovation waters with Innovation Charter

(An earlier version of this piece was posted last year to the HeroX blog)

A few years ago, I came across an innovation survey, sponsored by Wazoku. Its results shocked me. 

Full 85% of respondents to the survey–board members, senior and middle managers, and line workers at large UK enterprises–considered innovation important to their companies. So far, so good. Yet 53% of surveyed managers were unaware of their company’s definition of innovation and how it fit into wider corporate goals. And 38% said innovation wasn’t their responsibility because it wasn’t in their job descriptions.

So much for a popular corporate tune: in our company, innovation is everyone’s job!

A lack of understanding of what innovation means for firms remains one of the most serious problems facing corporate innovation. Even C-level executives aren’t immune to this disease, but at the lower organizational levels, almost everyone is infected.

Obviously, no single fix exists to solve the problem. However, for firms that are yet to develop a structured innovation process–and also the ones that struggle to run working innovation programs–I’d recommend a solution that may look deceptively simple (worse, outright bureaucratic) but may prove surprisingly effective. 

The solution is to create a corporate Innovation Charter.

There are three immediate reasons why the Innovation Charter can help firms innovate better.

The Innovation Charter defines corporate innovation strategy

The major objective of the Innovation Charter is to spell out what innovation means for this specific firm. Not humanity, not whole industry. This specific firm.   

It should start with explaining where the firm stands today and where it wants to be in the future. It should then describe how the gap between “now and then” is to be bridged, and what role innovation should play in this process.

The clarity about the place innovation occupies within the general corporate strategy will help select and support matching innovation programs (and not just a generic cocktail of hackathons, idea-generation extravaganza, and fast and often failure festivities).

Equally important, the Innovation Charter will help create a common innovation language, the lack of which often results in a communication wall between corporate innovation team and the rest of the firm.

The Innovation Charter extracts maximum (vis-à-vis innovation, of course) out of the CEO

CEOs are routinely blamed for the lack of attention to innovation, and I myself is guilty as charged.

But let’s face it: they are very busy people in charge of everything. It’s plain unrealistic to expect them to pay unwavering attention to innovation, a continuous, often behind-the-scene process, which lacks frequent “events” and shows no obvious need for day-to-day executive intervention.

So, instead of asking the CEO for constant checking in, the innovation team should create the Innovation Charter and ask the CEO to publicly endorse it. With this endorsement, the innovation team can claim executive support even when the attention of the executive leaders will inevitably shift to other priorities.

It’s tempting to call the Innovation Charter the innovation law of the land. Of course, like any other law, it will need periodic re-enforcement, but will still keep maintaining order even when there are no cops around.

The Innovation Charter makes innovation “everyone’s job”

Corporate innovation can become much more efficient if it’ll expand from traditional R&D or product development units to departments that are not directly involved in the innovation process (manufacturing, finance, HR, etc.). Unfortunately, very often, the corporate structure is too rigid, too “anti-matrix,” to allow innovation to become “everyone’s job.”

Realistically, not everyone in the firm will be willing to assume an extra load that participation in innovation activities demands—and that’s fine. But even those who want to get involved, often can’t do so because of the pressure of their regular jobs.

Besides, attempts at expanding innovation activities throughout the whole firm are often met with resistance at the level of all-powerful middle managers. Unwilling to sabotage corporate innovation initiatives openly (especially if endorsed by the CEO), they often resort to implicit sabotage by not allowing their reports to get engaged on the ground that those are “too busy.”

This is a series problem with no ready-to-go fix to it. But here, too, the Innovation Charter can help because it provides an explicit mandate to anyone in the firm to get their feet wet in the whole-firm innovation waters, something that even their managers can’t easily ignore.

Or, to say it differently, the Innovation Charter adds innovation activities to everyone’s job description at once. Kind of.

Image credit: https://www.britannica.com/story/which-waters-do-you-pass-through-when-you-sail-the-seven-seas

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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