The first article in this series focused on approaches to innovation stakeholder management. In that article I contrasted the approach outlined by Mitra Best in her HBR article titled “Get the Corporate Antibodies on Your Side,” where she suggested that you needed to get all stakeholders fully on board for your innovation efforts, in order to drive success. My experience says that this approach is unworkable within a corporate context, and that you need to focus efforts on the stakeholders that are both most likely to support your thinking, and are in a position to influence others towards your goals.
In today’s article, I want to focus on a couple of examples where in former roles I tried to generate broad support for my efforts, with varying degrees of success.
Example #1: Trying hard, but losing time
I worked with an organization where I was trying to launch an employee-focused innovation training and engagement program. Unlike today, where this kind of activity is well understood, this was a relatively new type of thinking, within an extremely conservative, political and consensus-driven organization. Not an ideal innovative environment, but large organizations rarely are. I was advised to gain support by the 15-members of an executive steering committee before proceeding with the launch of my training effort.
In order to move forward, I held a series of private talks with as many steering committee members as I could. This took some time to arrange, as the topic was hardly a high priority for these leaders. After a couple of months, I felt I had enough people on my side to present the training program to the broader group. For the presentation to the steering committee I prepared a beautiful document, accompanying slides and was filled with confidence of imminent success.
About half way through my 20-minute presentation one of the leaders questioned one of the graphs that he didn’t understand. The 7-8 minutes explanation of his stupid question took up the rest of my session. Accordingly, my topic was delayed until the next steering committee meeting for a final decision to move forward.
The next meeting was cancelled (I can’t recall why), so two months later I was back in the boardroom going over my proposal again, and this time more questions were raised. I felt that the last session and the prolonged delay were held against me and my proposal, and I was therefore on the defensive. Ironically, I also felt that the delay in a decision being made was also being held against me with an impression that I was not moving forward as aggressively as I should have been. One specific individual clearly did not see value in my proposal and constantly raised questions and suggested that I revise my thinking and come back the following month.
So, a month later, back in the same room, and finally I got approval for a scaled down version of my initial proposal. I essentially spent 6-months seeking support for a pilot program that, ironically, I wouldn’t have needed approval from in the first place (pilots didn’t need to go to committee). Eventually the program got rolled out in full, but the result of that delay was 9-months!
By seeking support from all stakeholders I was undermining my own credibility.
My learning here was, firstly, to check that every graph is idiot-proof. More importantly, by seeking support from all stakeholders I was undermining my own credibility. They didn’t care that much about my training effort, but they did care about delaying the roll-out of a program. I recommend avoiding full, public discussion of your proposals. Instead, seek personal input and use that to gain agreement to move forward.
Example #2: Choosing your battles, to win the war
I had been advising a company around expanding an innovation program from one division (a collection of Business Units (BUs)) with a goal of being a Corporate mandate within 18-months. We had limited resources, which meant we needed to choose our battles and avoid direct conflict with senior leaders. The organization was very hierarchical, and old school, so we knew that we had to tread carefully.
Our first step was to identify an executive sponsor, who we chose based on their innovative thinking, previous actions, ability to leverage opinion and willingness to put some skin in the game. We also developed a simple set of rules and criteria for BU’s to participate in our program, along with an outline of our resources and approach. We then reached out to a series of BU leaders who we felt would appreciate our thinking and would be willing to invest in our approach. About half of them agreed to support our efforts and so we quickly established our presence within their BUs and sought to create a series of quick successes.
We kept all other stakeholders aware of our efforts through indirect and / or non-traditional channels, often by touting the successes that had been achieved by leaders who had accepted our initial outreach. We kept those communications as a consistent reminder of possible success for other leaders. Over time, more and more leaders wanted to learn about our program. Some came on board, some held back. We didn’t push our thinking onto stakeholders, it was more of a “take it or leave it” kind of deal. Over time we built momentum with our efforts, to the point where we felt comfortable raising corporate sponsorship of our program, based on the successes we had generated to date. After a series of meetings, the organization’s president endorsed our program and we became a corporate mandate, with almost all leaders buying in on our approach.
With this program, our approach was to focus on those who agreed with our thinking, make the effort work for them, promote the hell out of that success, and then over time, come back to the “corporate antibodies” and see if they were interested in jumping on board. I was warned that this was a risky proposition, but in my opinion it wasn’t risky at all. The risk was to spend months trying to convince people who didn’t care about the program to come on board. I just didn’t have the time of patience for it.
I wanted to work with people who were aligned with our thinking, and wanted to drive results.
To be honest, I was tired of dealing with people who were not interested in supporting innovation as a competency. I wanted to work with people who were aligned with our thinking, and wanted to drive results. Furthermore, I have always seen myself as a bit of a disruptor, and ignoring the antibodies, within reason and with the appropriate backing, in this case made sense to me, so we moved forward.
In that case, and with other cases that I have dealt with through client experience, the results were unexpected. Because I was no longer dealing with the constant questions of corporate antibodies, there was more time to over- deliver to those who did buy into my approach.
These are clearly just personal examples of innovation success and failure, but I hope that they help with your own stakeholder management efforts. As always, feel free to share your own experiences.
Finally, in the first article in this series, I offered to provide a template that my company (Culturevate) makes available on our Innovation Portal/Toolbox titled Stakeholder Identification that guides users through this approach, so reach out to me directly for a copy.
By Anthony Ferrier