Congratulations! Your energy and track record of successfully launching high-impact initiatives scored you a plum role heading up innovation. Expectations are high, but some skeptics in the organization feel that innovation is an overhyped buzzword that doesn’t justify being a separate function. So, what can you do in your first 100 days to set things off on the right track?
Over the past decade we’ve helped dozens of leaders through their first 100 days. Based on our experience, augmented by in-depth interviews with a few of the most seasoned practitioners with which we have worked, we suggest that innovation leaders put the following five items on their 100-day punch list.
Spend quality time with every member of the executive committee. This should go without saying, but it’s vitally important to develop relationships with the CEO, business unit leaders, and other key executives to understand the company’s strategy, so that the innovation approach and projects you pursue align with overall corporate goals. Brad Gambill, who over the past few years has played a leading role in strategy and innovation at LGE, SingTel, and TE Connectivity, believes the first 100 days are an ideal time to “ask dumb questions and master the basics of the business.” He particularly suggests focusing on the things “everyone else takes for granted and thinks are obvious but aren’t quite so obvious to people coming in from the outside.” So don’t be afraid to ask why a decision-making meeting ran the way it did or challenge the wisdom of pursuing a certain strategy or project.
It is particularly important to understand these executives’ views of two things – innovation’s role in helping the company achieve its growth goals and your role in leading innovation. Is innovation intended to improve and expand the existing business, or is it meant to redefine the company itself and the industry in which it operates? Do executives expect you to establish and incubate a growth businesses, act as a coach to existing teams, or focus on establishing a culture of innovation so that new ideas emerge organically?
As you invest time with top executives, you should begin to understand the organizational relationship between your innovation work and the current business. Are leaders willing to give up some of their human and financial resources to advance innovation? Are you expected to recruit a separate team from within and beyond the company? Or are you expected to spin straw into gold by working without dedicated resources? Will leaders support you if you propose radical changes to people, structures, processes, and roadmaps, or are you supposed to change everything but in a way that no one notices?
Zero in the most critical organizational roadblocks to innovation. Chances are, you won’t get the same answers to these questions from everyone you talk to. Those areas where executives disagree with one another will define the most immediate (and often the most fundamental) challenges and opportunities you’ll face in your role.
As quickly as possible within your first 100 days, therefore, you will need to understand where the fault lines lay in your company. Pay particular attention to the three hidden determinants of your company’s true strategy – how it funds and staffs projects, how it measures and rewards performance, and how it allocates overall budgets. A clear understanding of where leaders’ priorities fail to match what the company is actually funding and rewarding will help you identify the biggest hurdles to achieving your longer-term agenda, and where short-term workarounds are required.
Define your intent firmly but flexibly. You don’t need to have all the answers perfectly formulated from the beginning. But you should have a perspective – even on Day 1 – regarding how your role as the innovation leader can help the organization achieve its overall strategy. Look for ways to stretch the boundaries of current innovation efforts, but remember you are not the CEO or CTO. You need them to want to support you, not worry that you are gunning for their jobs. Gambill suggests one way to build this trust is never to bring up a problem without also proposing a solution. The CEO “has lots of people who know how to point out problems; it is important to establish yourself as a problem solver and confidant as quickly as possible.”
Determine how you plan to balance your efforts between developing ideas, supporting initiatives in other parts of the organization, and creating an overall culture of innovation. Those are related, but distinctly different, tasks. Don’t get too rooted to your initial perspective. Be as adaptable in your approach as you will be when you work on specific ideas.
Develop your own view of the innovation landscape around the company. Colin Watts, who has played a leadership role in innovation and strategy functions at Walgreens, Campbell Soup, Johnson & Johnson, and Weight Watchers, suggests getting a “clear market definition ideally grounded in customer insights.” Companies tend to define their world based on the categories in which they compete or the products they offer. However, customers are always on the lookout for the best way to get a job done and don’t really care what industries or categories the solutions happen to fall into. Understanding how customers make their choices often reveals a completely different set of competitors, redefining the market in which your company operates, its role in the market, and the basis for business success.
Watts also suggests zeroing in on the adjacencies that have the potential to shape your market. As he notes, “There is no such thing as an isolated market anymore.” Through an innovation lens you are likely to see early signs of change that the core business might have missed.
Develop a first-cut portfolio of short and longer-term efforts, with a few planned quick losses. A key component of your job, of course, will likely be to advance a set of innovation initiatives. Some may already be in progress. There may be a backlog of ideas waiting to be developed. Or the raw material might be a bit rougher, existing primarily in people’s heads. Regardless, in the first 100 days you want to come up with a clear view of some of the specific things on which you will plan to work. Some of these might be very specific initiatives, like identifying product-market fit for a new technology. Some might involve investigating broader areas of opportunity (for example, “wearables”). Some may involve developing specific capabilities. One specific capability Watts suggests building as an “investment that will pay back for years to come” is a “fast and cheap way to pilot ideas and products.”
Savvy innovation leaders place some long-term bets that they start to explore while also quickly addressing some more immediate business opportunities to earn credibility. If your portfolio is all filled with near-in ideas, some people in the core organization might naturally ask why they can’t do what you are doing themselves. And you are probably missing the most exciting and possibly disruptive ideas in your space. But if the portfolio is filled only with further out ideas, you run the risk that organizational patience will run out as you do the long, hard work of developing them.
When considering quick wins, don’t avoid quick losses. True innovation requires an organization to stop avoiding failure and see the benefits of learning from it. But failure remains very scary to everyone. Have enough things going on that you can tolerate a quick loss without damaging your overall pipeline. As Watts says, “You may be able to do it fast or do it cheap or do it reliably but not likely all three.” Make sure that you and your executive sponsors loudly and proudly celebrate the first project you stop when it becomes clear it won’t work.
That feels like a lot for 100 days, and it is. Innovation has the power to positively transform an organization, but no one said it was going to be easy.
By Scott Anthony and Robyn Bolton