Commit a dedicated team to innovation, or throw In the towel

Ready to build an innovation team to secure your business's future? Ask these three questions about your company


Innovation, as a concept, is important to many business leaders. Unfortunately, it is these same business leaders who often fail to commit to making innovation part of their long-term strategies. The source of that disconnect? A task-focused daily schedule that most leaders practice and employ with their staff.

Managers tend to move from one responsibility to another because there is always more to be done than fits in a day. This focus on immediate tactical responsibilities has the unintended consequence of placing blinders on business leaders and decision makers, which can ultimately prove catastrophic. Innovation is not something leaders can set in motion and then forget. It requires constant nurturing and a commitment to always look for opportunities and find ways to execute on them.

If we accept the above, then the question becomes: "How can leaders remain focused on immediate tasks while also keeping an eye toward the future?" It starts with building a team that is solely focused on innovation. The business function of an innovation team is to identify and pursue innovative opportunities, which allows business leaders to remain in the present while still keeping a pulse on what changes may lie ahead.

Where these teams might lead

The particular need that most companies have for an innovation team becomes clear with one look at the current state of US corporate innovation. The 2018 Global Innovation Index dropped the US from fourth place to sixth place for a number of reasons, the foremost being a lack of internal resources being devoted to innovation.

Innovation teams are the most critical tool that companies require in order to innovate. And they don't cost any more than traditional business units. These teams take ownership of innovative opportunities by immersing themselves in the market, identifying and forecasting disruptive or innovative opportunities and then analyzing their potential in order to act on determined opportunities.

The innovation team must possess enough respect, authority and influence to both make effective changes and to present new and often controversial ideas that often challenge existing systems, processes and even people. Dedicated innovation teams must contain members with diverse perspectives and experiences and must understand the intricacies of the greater internal business.

Get ready to build

The pace at which the world is changing means innovation must be at the forefront of any company's mind. By leaving innovation to chance, business leaders are leaving the health of their companies to chance.

An innovation team shoulders that responsibility by keeping its company aware and open to new and innovative solutions. Ask the following questions of your company to ensure you are ready to take that step in securing your business's future:

1. Are you unsure about the future of your industry? If you think your industry might fall prey to disruption, then utilizing an innovation team led by a strong officer is the way to go. But how can you tell if your industry is subject to disruption?

Blockbuster Video saw disruption firsthand in 2007. Its Total Access streaming service and in-store DVD drop-offs went head-to-head with Netflix and were in a position to potentially buy the burgeoning DVD-by-mail service outright. That was until John Keyes took over as Blockbuster's CEO and refocused its business model on retail instead of on the future of video.

Keyes' decision to ignore industry trends and the transition, which focused on how customers wanted to consume video content, proved costly. Today, Netflix is a global entertainment empire, while Blockbuster filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 and has just one store remaining. Blockbuster's plight is proof that any business – regardless of size – can lose its standing within an industry. But the larger question is: Who could have predicted Netflix's rise in the '90s? The simple answer is no one, so Blockbuster should have had an innovation team out in the market experimenting, exploring, and executing in anticipation of disruptive change.

Visit Innovation Enterprise's Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York on December 6–7, 2018

2. Do you already have an innovation team in place? Do you have a team directed to nothing else but seeking disruption and seizing opportunities at the strategic level? Is the team driven by a senior leader who wields enough influence and respect to operate in ambiguity and still challenge the status quo? If an independent team is not practical, a hybrid approach might be appropriate.

Google, for example, uses its Garage lab and Google X research facility. The Garage is where Googlers can do their "20% work," the projects not directly related to the day-to-day tasks they tackle 80% of the time. Google X is where employees work on ambitious projects that are not a part of Google's current service line, such as speech processing, machine learning, and quantum AI.

If your company already has an innovation team make sure the team has every resource it needs. If your company does not have one, determine why and look into building or buying one.

3. How do employees communicate innovative ideas within your company? What methods and processes does your company have in place for cultivating new ideas? Is there a forum for collecting, analyzing, and executing on new and emerging ideas and opportunities? Does the idea go to the CEO, COO or CFO at some point?

An innovation team can be an outlet for employees to convey those ideas. Employees add value by being a source of ideas, regardless of how big or small the idea might be. Research shows that not everyone at a given company holds innovation in high regard, with some preferring instead to use a department of big ideas. But implementing smaller, incremental innovations – rather than big sweeping ones – is shown to have a larger and longer-lasting impact, as it is indicative of a "culture of innovation."

The innovation team should serve as a bridge between employees and senior leadership and should be tasked with communicating high-impact ideas and updates. Make it a direct pipeline to leadership to inspire them to put bold, outside-the-box ideas into action.

Innovation is not rocket science; it is something all of us should strive to build into our lives. And at the company level this responsibility should be borne by an innovation team. Make a commitment building for the future and invest in a team that will allow your company to remain relevant long into the future.

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