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The biggest mistake a corporate innovator makes is if they ignore the perceptions and relationships of people in their company. If you are charged with delivering innovation and growth, you control your own destiny, right? Well, not really.

Most innovation functions are enabling organizations with no direct control of a P&L. Even if you control a P&L, you are still dependent upon different functions and people with different motivations and behaviors to deliver on your innovation. In truth, corporate innovators act as a change agent for the company, charged with changing the way you operate or what you offer to the market. While it may be the right thing to do, the organization may respond differently.

Corporate innovators must embrace the role of change agent and recognize that role requires they become a corporate psychologist of sorts. I’ve discussed before the importance of getting a baseline on your reality within the company. Much of that is about understanding your environment, and nothing is more important than understanding the mindset and behavior of the company.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work within many great companies, but I picked up one of the most important lessons while working in Six Sigma at GE. The most critical tool is not the statistical analysis, but the Change Acceleration Process – a framework for delivering change and gaining acceptance through culture. Most important in this is to understand where your stakeholders stand and how to align them behind a program. I like to adapt that approach to innovation and develop a “People Baseline” to better understand and influence the collective psychology of your company.

Innovation programs do not get beyond the “idea phase” if you do not accept your role as a change leader (and psychologist). Here are some steps to find a deeper understanding of the company mindset and how to influence the people who shape it:

  1. Who are your stakeholders? This should be a 360-degree view of who has an impact on your initiative no matter if they are a senior executive, peer or subordinate. Be sure to include your perceived supporters and detractors.
  1. How do you perceive your stakeholder’s support of your program or initiative? Just as important, what type of support do you feel you need from them in order to have success? You could simply categorize support from your stakeholders being Supportive, Neutral or Resistant. While ideally, everyone will be Supportive of your initiative, the reality is that you just may need him or her to be Neutral instead of Resistant. You might find that you could even keep certain stakeholders Resistant in the short-term to execute your program but you need to be clear on the consequences.
  1. Listen, listen and keep listening. Meet with your stakeholders and find out where they stand on your program or initiative. Find out why they take their position and keep learning. Their insight might not only help with them but with others in the organization. Be mindful of passive resistance – the pockets of resistance which on the surface appear to be supportive while hiding objections can be a showstopper for innovation programs.
  1. Allow yourself to be the outlet they may need and play the role of psychologist. You may discover the most resistant person is fundamentally supportive but has doubts or fears due to past experience, compensation systems, management or many other reasons. Many times this is where those pockets of passive resistance surface (and it gives you and outlet to deal with it).
  1. You now have your People Baseline and know where your supporters are and where true resistance may exist. You also now have insights on what are the issues that make resistors want to resist and why supporters give you support. Now is the time to integrate that data into your broader plan and make adjustments if needed. More importantly, this is when you also make your plan on how to influence those that you need to move and keep the support of your champions.
  1. Keep talking and don’t ignore your People Baseline. If you need your IT leader to be a supporter and she or he is resistant, you cannot force your way through that obstacle. Prioritize your key stakeholders and keep an active dialogue with them.

Innovation is hard and a strong innovation initiative will run into obstacles and will (and should) push people beyond their comfort zone. Don’t disregard this. At the core, you need to understand that your innovation program may be impacting peoples’ careers and livelihood. Early in an initiative, invest the time to understand your stakeholders and establish a People Baseline. Get below the surface and talk to them like a psychologist. Actively listening and understanding the concerns and vulnerabilities of those around you will give you not only a smoother path to deploying your innovation program but also the advocates you need to have success.

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Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups.