Innovation’s Perception Gap

August 18, 2020

In business culture today, there is still a broad, albeit implicit, belief that innovation is innate. Whether you’re a person or a company, you either have it or you don’t. If Steve Jobs is your CEO, high-flying innovation is inevitable. Otherwise, you’re destined for mediocrity.

Such attitudes are problematic for multiple reasons, not least because they perpetuate the very issues they aim to denounce. In my experience, there is no reason to be defeatist about big-company innovation. Instead of blaming “company culture,” try tackling innovation’s perception gap.

If you work in corporate innovation, tell me if you’ve been part of a conversation like this:

Senior executive: How’s it going on the self-flying aircrafts?

Innovator: Nothing to show just yet. We ran into a few structural design obstacles.

Senior executive: OK, but we really need to keep this moving. The CEO wants to see progress.

Innovator: Understood. We’ll push harder to find a workaround.

Senior executive: Maybe I can help. How about an ideation session? We could bring in folks from across the division.

Innovator: Honestly, we’re almost there… if we can just stay the course a little longer… [looks up and realizes this is the wrong answer]. But uh, okay. If that’s what you really want.

Senior executive: Great! I’ll set it up for next week. There’s a brainstorming coach we’ve used in the past who’s really good.

Innovator: [sigh]

I’ve heard this story from both sides – both the leaders who are desperate to nudge innovation forward, and team members who need space to do their work.

It’s easy for each side to grow frustrated. Leadership is concerned about a lack of fresh thinking, feeling the need to inject “entrepreneurial DNA” into the organization. Innovation teams respond by hoarding information, hoping to avoid higher-level meddling that they view as a waste of time.

Over time, this dynamic perpetuates the stereotype of a big-company bureaucracy. It leads to well-worn critiques of not-invented-here (NIH) syndrome, “innovation theater”, and a belief that big corporations simply cannot innovate like startups.

From the best of intentions…

Most often, the culprit is not the senior executives, nor the innovation teams, nor any other group of people. Rather, it’s a predictable consequence of innovation’s “perception gap.” People on all sides don’t know enough about the overall picture, so they come to assume the worst.

Innovation’s perception gap exists on multiple levels, between a variety of different actors and stakeholders. Not only must innovation leaders maintain alignment with and among on-the-ground R&D teams, they must also repeatedly convince and re-convince the rest of the organization to engage. They must argue for air cover from above, extending a halo of good faith while protecting delicate programs from the wrong types of scrutiny at the wrong stages of development.

How hard are the innovation teams working? Are they really open to their colleagues’ ideas? How long will this take? Is the company truly willing to invest in innovation? How soon until leadership tries yet another reorg?

Too often, the relationship between R&D and the rest of the business – much like the one between R&D’s innovation leaders and their teams – becomes fraught with implicit, and typically cynical, answers to these questions. This breeds an institutional failure to innovate beyond pedestrian and predictable options – a form of death-by-incrementalism. When economic cycles are strong and stable, such missed opportunities can be swept comfortably under the rug. In times of rising uncertainty and rapid change, they become fatal flaws.

A different kind of “open” innovation

The concept of Open Innovation has been around since at least 2003, with the publication of Henry Chesbrough’s eponymous book. By now, we all understand that R&D and innovation teams need to embrace externally-sourced technologies, solutions, and partners.

By comparison, internal coordination of innovation receives precious little attention, at least publicly. And yet, in many firms, the innovation process remains riddled with information hoarding, lack of transparency, and anti-collaborative behavior.

The recent popularity of ideation programs has made some inroads – whether via challenges, campaigns, shark tanks, hackathons, or something else. But in private moments, we’ve heard over and over that a lack of ideas is not the central problem. Instead, insufficient trust, inconsistent teamwork, and misaligned incentives drag down a firm’s potential.

Innovation’s perception gap is crying out for attention. The best levers for combating mistrust and cynicism are openness and transparency. It is a difficult but necessary path for leaders who seek to do better.

The path to sustained excellence

Increasing innovation’s internal transparency, if done thoughtfully, offers far more opportunity than risk. There are two primary levers for making progress, one strategic and the other operational.

At an executive level, R&D and innovation leaders can find ways to share more information about the strategies guiding their actions. They can highlight the portfolio of bets already in play, the underlying business logic behind those bets, and the current options and levers for executing on that portfolio. Naturally, there will be aspects of strategy that cannot and should not be shared beyond a small group. But that should not preclude a general willingness to bring colleagues inside the innovation tent as much as possible. And it should happen at every development stage, not just ideation.

Openness also makes a big difference on a project-by-project basis. Robust reports shared proactively with internal stakeholders create new opportunities for funding and cross-functional mobilization. Increased transparency with other teams and functions regarding each project’s current status, obstacles, and successes provides a broader “edge surface” for ongoing collaboration.

I’ve seen cases where stalled innovation priorities suddenly came back to life, just because the right internal SMEs became aware of their significance and found ways to help. Similarly, important innovation resources can materialize where none had been apparent – everything from existing IP assets and internal troves of knowledge to external connections mined from the firm’s implicit network of relationships.

Bridging the perception gap isn’t an overnight fix. But what starts as a trickle can grow to a torrent. The longer you wait to play the transparency game, the longer you’re delaying a shot at the next level of success.



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