Innovation Blockers: Who owns innovation?

by Aaron Slater, on 13 Jan 2021 4 min read


We continue to explore the innovation blockers raised by our second report. Read on for solutions from our experts.

In our 2020 Innovation Blockers Report we revealed five major blockers to innovation that businesses face. We’ve discussed four of these blockers in detail over on our blog, and now it’s time to delve deeper into number five: disagreement or confusion over who owns innovation

Read our 2020 Innovation Blockers report in full here

For our report itself, we spoke to a number of innovation specialists to find out more about overcoming the five innovation blockers we covered. Now, we’re rounding up advice from innovation experts, published research and our own insights to understand how to handle confusion around who actually owns innovation within an organisation. 

Does anyone ‘own’ innovation?

Director of Start Up Rail and member of The Rail Innovation Group’s strategy board, Johannah Randall, says that often innovation will be seen as something purely carried out by the innovation team. That, she says, is not an approach she favours. Instead, she says, “Until there is maturity and everyone is responsible for goal alignment then organisations can and will dodge making improvements to the business”. In her view, innovation should be seen as part of “business as usual”.

KSK Consulting founder, Katherine Allan, meanwhile, points out that, “depending on how a business is set up, there may be no innovation department or the one that exists may not communicate or educate as well as it could”. Alternatively, the business may see innovation as a ‘nice to have’. 

Learn more from Katherine and our other innovation specialists in our 2020 Innovation Blockers report

When speaking with Ninety Days CEO, Arend Welmers, he brings in the concept of what he titles ‘functional thinking’, which “can mean that people define their contribution in terms of their job title and description.” With only the larger organisations tending to hire people specifically for an Innovation Manager or Innovation Director role, he believes this ‘functional thinking’ can mean that people without innovation built into their role will take no responsibility for it - despite the fact that “even then those specialist innovation directors/managers are really mainly custodians and facilitators of the innovation process.”

Co-founder of innovation consulting firm, Outcome, Cris Beswick, also points to two pieces of research that highlight the lack of ownership of innovation. A 2019 Leadership and Innovation report from McKinsey reveals that around a third of leaders manage their organisation’s innovation on an ad hoc basis when needed, while a further third manage it as part of the agenda set by the senior leadership team. 

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Meanwhile, KPMG’s Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2020 report highlights the different ways in which different types of innovation are handled within organisations. Incremental innovation, for example, is predominantly led by business unit staff (81.6%), followed by the R&D team (46.1%) and the innovation team (32.5%). However, it’s the central innovation team (58.1%) who are more likely to lead transformational innovation, with business unit staff coming fourth, behind the R&D team, and outside resources. 

Cris believes that this could, in part, link back to the fact that there is often no real definition of what innovation is. He believes that if an organisation’s staff clearly understood the definition of and strategy behind innovation, then its reporting lines would be far clearer. 

How to make innovation happen

For some of our innovation specialists, the key priority is to ensure that the leadership team plays its role. 

Cris Beswick believes that leaders should be the ones to own the innovation agenda and everything around it. This includes both the physical side - things like innovation strategy - as well as the emotional and psychological side, including purpose, inspiration, psychological safety and inspiration. 

He believes that the leadership team should also provide managers with the same physical, emotional and psychological assets to allow them to drive innovation within their own teams, making it part of ‘business as usual’ and bringing it to life. In this way, these managers can enable and encourage every other employee to contribute to the innovation process, creating an ecosystem and culture that lets innovation thrive. And for this all to happen, an innovation culture strategy is a necessity. 

Arend Welmers agrees. He says, “The CEO is ultimately accountable for innovation, any innovation specialist or a company director or senior manager is the architect and the facilitator of the innovation process, but everybody “owns” innovation!”

Finally, energy and infrastructure leader, Tim Stiven agrees that everybody should own innovation, but that it can be regarded in two different ways. The first is that those at the top drive innovation through to the rest of the business, suggesting what they believe the solution to a problem to be, and providing ideas as to what to do about it. 

The second is that innovation is driven from the bottom: senior leadership encourages every single member of staff to come up with their own ideas, creating a diverse pool of potential solutions to choose from, and see what happens. 

Tim thinks that a successful system should include both approaches. While there needs to be some kind of governance in place - some way of identifying both why and how change is to happen - there also needs to be that creativity and wealth of ideas that could come from any single member of the team. 

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Topics:Innovation Blockers