When our car breaks down, we call a mechanic.
When our bathroom is flooded, we call a plumber.
We don’t call a plumber to fix our car, nor do we call a dentist to help our dog get over its separation anxiety.
Yet in the world of corporate innovation, this is essentially what’s happening.
Having worked in the space for six years, I’ve come across hundreds of people plucked from the wilderness of Accounts Payable, Risk Management or even Graduate rotation programs, and elevated to ‘Head of Innovation’ — or a more questionable sounding title such as Chief Disruptor or Innovation Ninja.
Sometimes they even maintain double-roles, heading up risk management and innovation at the same time.
Three Problems with Token Innovation Roles
There are numerous problems with this, including the following three big ones.
1. It signals to employees, would-be partners and would-be intrapreneurs that the organisation is not serious about innovation.
If you have a lifer from Accounts Payable suddenly heading up Innovation, do you think that seasoned innovators or entrepreneurs will want to join your company to work under them? Or that intrapreneurial people from across the company will want to engage with the program?
2. It sets the scene for fruitless efforts and the innovation program’s failure.
Without the requisite experience or knowledge, poor decisions will follow, and your company’s innovation program will likely be characterised by low-hanging fruit initiatives like hackathons and ‘dress like a startup’ days, without any substance, measurable returns or sustainability.
The token innovation leader will likely get the wool pulled over their eyes by consultants selling what they don’t need — that’s providing there is any budget to invest in the first place.
Such initiatives, if not part of a broader, strategically aligned program, that focuses on building the right environment, ultimately causes more harm than good once the initial hype dies down and not a single idea has progressed to execution.
3. It compromises the achievement of decision-maker buy-in
When you bring people into such roles without the requisite experience or influence, then they will have a much harder time getting buy-in from key decision-makers and supporters to get anything done. Buy-in is central to moving the needle on corporate innovation efforts, and without it, innovation will ultimately get bogged down in red tape.
Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t value with bringing people into the fold from different parts of the organisation that have nothing to do with innovation. In fact, creativity and innovation is essentially about the intersection of disparate topics and areas.
However, when it comes to driving innovation and ultimately leading your organisation’s innovation efforts, hiring people who have deep experience in the space, understand the nuances and can make better decisions is critical to sending the right message, inspiring people to action and getting a return-on-investment on your efforts.