Four Actions That Derail Innovation (And What To Do Instead)

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Innovating — doing something different that creates value — is hard. Innovating within a large organization can feel impossible. In my work with corporate innovators, we always start with great optimism that this time will be different.

This time innovation will stick and become the engine that drives lasting growth.

Within weeks, sometimes days, however, we start to be “loved to death,” a practice that takes one of two forms:

  • The Protector who says: “That’s not how we do things, and if you insist on doing things that way, you’ll get shut down. Instead, do things this way.”
  • The Enthusiast who exclaims: “This is amazing! I would love to be involved. And you should share what you’re doing with this person, and definitely tap into this other person’s experience, and I know this third person will want to be involved, and you definitely must talk to…”

Neither means harm; in fact, they’re trying to help. But if intrapreneurs aren’t careful, The Protector will edit their work into something that is not different or value-creating, and The Enthusiast will suffocate them with meetings.

Being “loved to death” is just one of the ways I’ve seen corporate innovation efforts get derailed. Here are four others:

  1. Performances for senior executives: Yes, it’s important to meet regularly with senior leaders to keep them apprised of progress, learnings, results and next steps. But there’s a fine line between updating executives because they’re investors and conference room performances to show off shiny objects and excite executives. It takes time for innovation teams to prepare for meetings (one team I worked with spent more than 100 hours preparing for one), which is time they aren’t spending working, learning and making progress.
  2. Vanity metrics that feel good: There are well-established metrics of success for existing businesses, but there is no commonly accepted set of innovation metrics because innovation evolves too rapidly and is pursued for countless reasons. As a result, intrapreneurs are tempted to “game the system” and measure things like site visits and NPS that make executives feel good but don’t measure the viability of the innovation in the market.
  3. Inviting everyone to everything: Transparent communication is important in all aspects of business, not just innovation. But just as established businesses choose when, how and with whom to be transparent, so too must corporate innovators. For example, one more than 100-person accelerator invited everyone to every meeting and treated all comments as equally important. While this may look and feel egalitarian, it paralyzed teams because they had to respond to every comment, test every suggestion and defend every decision.
  4. Basing incentives only on the core business’s performance: Despite the mantra to “act like a VC,” it isn’t practical for large organizations to incentivize innovation teams the same way VCs incentivize their staff or portfolio companies. But the other extreme — using the same incentives with both core business and innovation teams — is equally damaging because it results in the pursuit of “safe” projects and demoralizes intrapreneurs.

Overcoming Innovation Obstacles

As common as these four innovation derailers are, they are also easily overcome.

  • Incorporate QMWD meetings. Quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily (or QMWD) is an incredibly effective planning framework I often use with clients. Here’s how it works: Schedule one leadership meeting per quarter and one per month. Create templates so that teams can quickly fill in blanks, instead of creating presentations from scratch. Monitor time spent preparing for meetings. If more than one week (approximately 40 hours) is spent preparing for a quarterly meeting and/or more than one day (8 hours) is spent preparing for a monthly meeting, revise the templates, process and expectations.
  • Evolve what you measure and when. According to research by CB Insights, the top two reasons startups fail is no market need and they run out of cash. To avoid this fate, intrapreneurs should always measure desirability, feasibility and viability, and change shift of the three is most important based on where the innovation is in its life cycle. For example, early innovation metrics should focus on whether there is a need and whether the innovation satisfies it (desirability). As confidence about desirability grows, metrics should shift to focus on whether the innovation can be made and delivered in a financially attractive way (feasibility) and whether the customer is willing to pay (viability).
  • Use transparency to build support and let experience drive progress. Innovation teams need to share their learnings with other teams and need to be open to feedback and suggestions. Create a specific time and place for that to happen. For example, one of my clients hosts a monthly Lunch & Learn for teams to discuss projects. Outside of that dedicated time, however, empower innovation teams to move quickly because they are closest to the market.
  • Base incentives on the core business and innovation objectives. It’s important to foster a “we’re all in this together” mentality among core and innovation teams, which is why rewarding intrapreneurs on some elements of the core business’s performance is essential. However, intrapreneurs are not working on the core business, and as a result, their incentives should also reflect what they are working on. Like innovation metrics, there’s no common standard for innovation incentives, which is why I encourage my clients to base innovation teams’ incentives on their objectives for the year and to adjust, even fundamentally change, incentives as objectives shift.
  • Say ‘thank you’ and move on. As The Protector and The Enthusiast give advice and make connections, remember that they are trying to help, so write down what they say and respond with a genuine “thank you.” Then decide what will be helpful, do it and ignore the rest. If they follow up, have another conversation, but odds are they won’t because their focus has shifted.

Lots of things derail innovation, but with a little planning and commitment, it’s possible to stay on track and do the “impossible” — innovate in a large organization.

Originally posted on

Robyn M. Bolton, Founder & Chief Navigator, MileZero

Robyn M. Bolton
Founder & Chief Navigator

Robyn M. Bolton works with billion-dollar companies to use innovation to create meaningful new growth. You can read more about her and her work at www.milezero.

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