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It is a major challenge for an innovation leader to operate in an environment where the top executives don

It is a major challenge for an innovation leader to operate in an environment where the top executives don’t get innovation or – perhaps even worse – do understand it but are unwilling to fully embrace it because it means going against the board of directors’ focus on short-term financial goals.

What can you do to thrive in such an environment? Based on my experiences, here are some methods to apply:

1. Challenge and stretch the mindset of the top executives. Innovation is a holistic activity that needs to be understood and embraced by everyone from the top to the bottom. For this reason, your innovation training initiatives should include top executives. In addition to building their knowledge of how innovation actually works, this will also help create a common language around innovation, one of the factors that is important for helping innovation work.

I once did a presentation at a company where my audience was a fairly typical crowd – the R&D guys and a few innovation leaders. But there was one person who was not part of the usual suspects. It was a finance guy who asked good questions and was really engaged. It was not until the end of the presentation that I learned it was not just a finance guy; it was actually the CFO.

The innovation leader who had recently joined the company was having success in trying to make all executives understand they had a role to play when it comes to innovation. The innovation leader used the Ten Types of Innovation framework from Doblin to make the CFO understand he should also be involved.

The level of a company’s innovation culture and efforts can generally be gauged by the people who attend internal innovation events. If the event has been publicized to the whole company and all business areas – not just those who are supposed to care about innovation – you can simply look at the diversity of the participants.

The more diverse the attendance – both in terms of business areas and in terms of people from all levels – the better the innovation culture. So when you set up training efforts and work to create the common language make sure you reach out to everyone, including senior executives.

2. Help your top executives understand – and buy into – that the innovation strategy should be tightly linked to the overall strategy. This is a way to make them commit personally as they are all vested in the overall strategy. Create a roadmap for the executives that shows the path from the corporate strategy to the innovation strategy and then through the various elements of innovation you’re pursuing. Any time you’re doing a presentation, be sure to include this roadmap as a reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing.

3. Understand what really matters to the top executives and especially the CEO. Is the CEO more focused on the bottom line (streamline processes, cut costs and such) or the top line (grow sales)? Make sure you initiate innovation projects on areas having preference of the top executives and get support from key people having influence on this preference. If you can find ways to get top executives personally committed to innovation efforts because they match with what really matters to them, you can make good long-term progress by getting even small wins in areas that matter to your top executives. This and others of the below suggestions can help you win the backing needed to move into other – and bigger – innovation initiatives later.

4. Leverage the power of corporate communications. If you have to really educate your top executives on innovation, you should invest heavily in building strong working relationships with your corporate communication department. Make sure they understand what you’re doing and its importance to the company. This will help generate stories – both internally and externally – that can create a perception that the company is making strides in innovation while still keeping people aware that there is ample room to improve.  This perception can help when you need to ask for resources and support.

5. Do not start too many initiatives. Most innovation leaders are highly driven people who thrive on change and are capable of keeping many balls in the air at the same time. But remember that many leaders do not share these traits; they prefer for things not to change and aren’t interested in taking on anything new. Thus, while you’re tempted to start a flurry of initiatives, it is better to narrow your focus rather than going in many directions at once.

6. Get some small wins. Achieving some small successes can help convince top executives that you understand the need for the short-term results they value. This will build confidence in your overall program and give you credibility for going after larger innovation goals.

The one part of the system that you have little influence over is the board of directors. Since they choose the CEO and influence top executives through him/her as well as decide the basis for salary raises and bonuses, they have a huge impact on whether innovation gets the support it needs. Unfortunately, there is little you can do as an innovation leader to influence the board.

This also brings brings us to a final word of advice. When you take on the role of innovation leader, you need to get things to develop. But if you find yourself constantly hitting your head against the wall because of roadblocks thrown up by a leadership team that does not understand or support innovation, you need to ask yourself if you are in the right place. And you probably need to get out. In most situations, I would advice giving yourself a maximum of two years before giving up on being able to help senior executives become true supporters of innovation.

It would be great to hear your suggestions on how to work with top executives who do not get innovation.

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