5 strategies for overcoming common barriers to embracing innovation
Several years ago, my team and I were working with a client to help develop new lines of business using a product innovation approach. At the kickoff, our main contact told us his job was on the line.
“Everything is riding on this project,” he said. “If we can’t make this work, I’m out.”
It was an incredibly bold way to introduce product innovation to an organization. But it worked. That project sponsor was such a big believer in the power of product innovation he was willing to gamble his job on it. His confidence served an important role: it convinced his bosses to let him bring us on and try something new.
Getting that top-level buy-in is essential for leaders who want to bring product innovation to their organizations—and it can be hard. The good news: putting your job on the line is not the only way to win executive support for product innovation programs. Here are five strategies that work.
1. Understand the source of resistance
First, let me be clear: when leaders at an organization resist the idea of product innovation, it doesn’t mean they’re bad leaders or backward or that they lack some necessary component needed to successfully innovate.
Resistance is natural. Organizations are set up to run the business they have. They’re optimized for efficiency as the organization exists, which usually means to continue delivering value in a specific, known, sustainable way.
Innovation is about creating something new that drives lasting value. It’s also about the unknown. Because of that, it feels risky––like a distraction from what's known to work.
And while most business leaders know intellectually that their organizations should be innovating, there’s often emotional resistance—especially when they’ve had bad experiences with innovation in the past. Maybe they themselves championed an innovation experiment years ago and it flopped and hurt their reputation.
Maybe the org spun up an innovation lab that came up with interesting ideas the core business had no way of integrating, and the “failed” initiative ended up looking like a colossal waste of time and money.
The important thing to remember is that, when leaders are resistant to the idea of product innovation, there's a good reason why. Learning that reason is the first step to getting past their reluctance to engage. For example, if they remember how their past advocacy for innovation made them lose status, try reframing the effort as a way of getting siloed teams collaborating, getting access to customer wisdom, or uncovering fresh insights that will drive new value for the company—and so raise the status of those who participate.
Another helpful strategy is to emphasize trying the smallest version possible: instead of spinning up another innovation lab, could you try a 90-day pilot? What about a six-week sprint? Suddenly, the hard “no” has become a negotiation of terms.
2. Get a leader to share your sense of urgency
Being the internal champion for product innovation can be exhilarating. It can also be stressful. If you’re the sole champion, you’re responsible for all the success (and the failure).
One way to avoid carrying that burden is to get a leader to share in your enthusiasm and exigency by asking questions in such a way they come to the same conclusion as you: product innovation is the best approach to discover something new and the time to act is now.
For example, you might start with the pain point you’re hoping to address.
In many organizations, these pain points are things everyone is aware of, but nobody wants (needs) to address. Often, you can get away with not addressing them in the short-term because another product or part of the business is successful enough to make up for whatever’s not working. That’s not a tenable long-term strategy, but in the absence of solutions, it’s the default.
These pain points are an excellent way to get a leader behind your plan. In your conversation, try hitting these talking points:
What we’re doing here isn’t working / could be so much better / is holding us back.
This looks like an opportunity to try something new. Would you agree?
What would need to be true at our organization to attempt something?
This gets you, again, to a place where you’re discussing concrete ways to try a product innovation approach. The leader’s curiosity is piqued because you moved the conversation from “problem spotting” to “problem solving” and their interest can then be channeled into investment.
(Bonus question: if a leader does not agree there's an opportunity to try something new, try asking “What would change your mind?” That can unlock a lot of possibilities.)
3. Tell stories to set expectations
One reason leaders resist product innovation is that it’s new and unfamiliar. But, again, many leaders have experiences with “innovation” that ended in “failure.” To my mind, the real failure is one of storytelling, which means it can be overcome with a better narrative.
For example: it’s important to set expectations. A brand-new product or service will not, in the first months after launch, drive the same kind of revenue the business’s established products and services do. If you frame innovation in that light, it will not succeed. It will not hit the kind of KPIs your core business lines do.
Instead, frame product innovation as an opportunity to learn: if we have this outcome, we go down one path; if we have this other outcome, we go down another path.
Establish at the outset that you’ll measure based on OKRs.
The goal of taking a product innovation approach is not to decide whether this approach succeeds or fails; rather, the goal is to try something new and learn from it. You may discover a new product is viable to develop; you may learn something much smaller that lets you optimize an existing product or that focuses your next experiment.
To gather information that guides you in these directions, don’t seek binary feedback (I like it / I don’t like it). Look for evaluative feedback: here’s what I love about this. Here’s what I hated. From there you can ask why, solicit ideas to iterate further, and uncover new opportunities.
4. Use analogous examples to spark curiosity
I love this strategy because it gets around so many natural barriers. Here’s how it works:
When you see something interesting in an industry not related to yours that aligns with what you’d like to try, bring it to a leader in your organization with the framing of “What would our version of this look like?”
For example, if you’re in healthcare, you might read about an innovative customer experience happening at an automotive company. You bring it to your boss, saying, “I wonder if we could try to do something similar for our customers.”
This works because it removes the threat that would come from referencing a competitor. Highlight what a competitor is doing well, and leaders may bristle. Or else they’ll say (rightly) that they don’t want to chase competitors.
This strategy is more curious and unexpected. Healthcare companies aren’t competing with automotive companies. Looking to them for inspiration feels safer and less threatening.
The key to this strategy is being able to frame the idea correctly, by finding the kernel that will inform your work.
5. Get some skin in the game
As I mentioned earlier, not everyone can afford to put their job on the line to get buy-in for product innovation. But maybe you’re able to put skin in the game in a smaller way. For example: Do you have a budget? Could you commit part of it to running the pilot? Or could you divert a couple members of your team to run some lean experiments?
When you demonstrate your commitment to a team in such a concrete way, it has a powerful effect.
Innovation is a way of working
Product innovation is not a tool or technique. It’s an approach to work. Adopting a product innovation approach requires cultural, organizational, and behavioral shifts. Those things are difficult and they take time.
But they’re essential to invest in. Given the current rate of change in the world, the only way to outperform the competition for the long term is to consistently innovate. And the only way to consistently innovate is to embrace a work approach that allows for experimentation, learning, and change.
If you’re struggling to convince your leadership that product innovation is an approach worth trying, we may be able to help. Get in touch so we can learn more about your current state and figure out ways to help you move in a direction that will position you for what's next.
Published by Antonio Garcia in Product Innovation