Is Innovation Career Suicide?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: your CEO (or more likely new CEO) decides that your company needs to be more innovative, either generating profitable new products, becoming more of a leader in the space or trying to juice up employee engagement. Let’s do some moonshots! As a career innovator, this is what you like to hear.

There’s a budget for the development of an innovation program, and possibly even the creation of an innovation group, dedicated personnel charged to foster and encourage innovation within the organization. The budget may be for the program, or the people, or the budget may be to generate targeted IP, to help start or expand an existing patent portfolio. The mandate is “envision the future of our business,” and help take us there.

They announce with great fanfare. They hire innovation and facilitation gurus, and internal teams are built to foster more innovative processes, new products, and process improvements, leading to higher profitability and cost savings.

It starts strong, with a lot of initial employee engagement. Ideas are submitted and if the program is properly set up, reviewed and dispositioned by a team of reviewers, and some rise up to become attractive enough to prototype, or even lead into a possible patent application.

These are great ideas. The ideas could go on to become an entirely new product, opening up new markets for the company. Unfortunately, there is no current market for the products TODAY, so enthusiasm from leadership wanes (not always, but in most cases, we’ve seen). Plenty of great forward-thinking ideas are generated, but few to none come to fruition.

The next step is accountability. Instead of the innovation group developing future products and services, its asked to justify these ideas against current day business models, when the markets may not exist yet. There was no guaranteed market for Twitter when it launched. No guaranteed market for Slack. No guaranteed market for the iPhone. The product was launched, and the market picked them up.

But it doesn’t matter. The same leadership which gave the innovation group free rein to envision the future of the company now needs to develop for today, not tomorrow. All work requires sponsorship by a profitable business unit and show promise as a real product for today’s market.

There are no more moonshots, no more disruptive innovation. And we are back to square one when the leadership decides to disband the group or keep it as a non-functioning figurehead (to brag to others that they have an innovation group).

The innovation staff is then reassigned, leaves or is let go. Those who are let go move to another firm which is at the front end of the “innovation cycle,” and the cycle begins all over again:

  1. Innovation is important, let’s budget for it and give it the freedom to be disruptive
  2. Innovation is important, but let’s make sure that it will solve a real business problem of today
  3. Innovation is important, but let’s make sure that we hit our numbers.
  4. Innovation is so important; we don’t even need to have an innovation group. Everyone needs to innovate.

I’ve seen innovation personnel that I know cycle through this same cycle, every time. Dedicated innovation personnel are valued until they aren’t.

So is having “innovation” in your title career suicide? Depends on the company and the industry.

In some companies, innovation is tossed around like salt and pepper, seasoning this title or another, when innovation is not part of the job description.

But in others, those that get it, understand that innovation is hard work, moonshots take time and money, and if they at all concerned about being disrupted away from their current customer base, they know that innovation is an essential skill to build and foster internally.

If you want to maintain a career in the “innovation arts,” you may need to look elsewhere.

Some companies are finally starting to move beyond innovation theater and are beginning to looking at innovation strategically. Innovation is starting to be embedded within leadership’s strategic playbook. They are looking at the leadership of the Titans in the ultra-successful tech industry and are seeing that visionary leadership, fostering disruptive innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, can lead to massive profits and market leadership.

Being innovative will save your career, as opposed to the opposite.