Fake vs. Real Innovation: How to Tell the Difference

Here’s a situation you may be familiar with. Instead of creating something truly new and interesting for your customers, your innovation team seems to be dragging their feet. This is an unwelcome surprise. After all, you created this team to give the company the moonshots it needs to get to compete in an increasingly crowded market. And, well, they just seem … stuck.

It could be the world conspiring, or (more likely) your innovation team isn’t set up for success.

My name is Adam Thomas, and I started working with “innovation” over ten years ago as the lead of new mainframe initiatives at DTCC. Since then, I’ve consulted as a product strategist at Philosophie for companies like PwC and Google, as well as built my own innovation teams in-house at Informed.

In my experience, most teams that are tasked with innovation aren’t given what they need to function effectively. These three blockers tend to be the biggest reasons for it:

  1. The innovation team isn’t given a clear directive. 
  2. The innovation team is just building what leadership wants
  3. The innovation team is seen as a “‘training ground”

In this post, I’ll talk about how these three situations happen and how you can prevent them so your company can keep pushing forward.

The innovation team isn’t given a clear directive

I started here because this is the mistake I see most.

When teams decide to innovate, they are usually are facing the maturity of a product line and/or high levels of stability. Or their backs are against the wall.

While those situations are drastically different, I’ve seen teams in all three circumstances make the same mistake: not being clear about how the team operates. Innovation takes a mindset that is vastly different from standard product development. Instead of success, you hunt failure. Instead of stability, you go for speed. You seek ugliness instead of beauty. 

This isn’t clear to anyone who hasn’t worked on a team like this before. And when creating this type of team, it needs to be stated that we are here to roll our sleeves up and make mistakes until we get to moonshots. 

The same goes for leadership. It is tempting to think of folks doing innovation work as extra resources, to pull when needed. However, you’re asking them to change mindsets, not just workload. That won’t go the way you think it will. The team will get “soft in the middle” — confident on the outside, but constantly curious when alone. 

Combat the lack of clarity by making it obvious that the innovation team is there to do just that — innovate. If they have to go to different projects, make sure it happens constructively, not ad-hoc.

The innovation team is just building what leadership wants

Let’s consider company leadership again. 

You built this innovation team and got them ready — why can’t they just make what you want?

It’s your company, isn’t it?

Sure it is. However, if you want them to build what you want more than likely it won’t be your company for long since you are wasting your and their time.

If you are ready for some straight talk, here it is: The team is there to innovate for the customers — not for you.

Innovation teams, even more so than standard product development teams, are research- and action-driven.  You can’t do both and listen to leadership. There are too many voices and the room and you’ll slow the team down.

Moonshots are incredibly hard and require a bit of luck. Everything the team can do to improve confidence in themselves is critical for success since the market will be rejecting them constantly.

Taking that agency out of their hands is a death knell for these teams because it kills curiosity.

Combat this by not asking questions about the work, but only about progress. Leadership needs to care about decision and experiment velocity as well as success. Everything else slows the team down and keeps things from getting done. 

The innovation team is seen as a “‘training ground”

So, I just mentioned speed. It’s tempting to put junior staff on innovation. I understand why because I’ve been there. The senior staff has a lot of things to worry about. You can throw juniors on it, then claim you care about the innovation team because it has a high headcount.

However, speed is super important to innovation. You need to find out if you can something to market quickly and make it matter to your customers — fast. That is where senior staff come in. They have been through a lot and can take a “no” here or there.

They also know who to talk to get what they need. Not having to hold hands during the process is paramount to getting things out the door. Plus, the senior staff knows where the bodies are buried. They will ensure quickness and are more than likely looking for a place to grow. Put the responsibility on them and watch them flourish.

Make sure you have at least a 2:1 ratio (two juniors to one senior) to ensure that the innovation team is working effectively.

Innovation is hard work

Some of the most rewarding work of my career came when I worked on and with innovation teams. I got a leg up on technologies like AI and VR by being part of innovation teams at the beginning of the decade.

However, it’s hard work that can be demoralizing, and the mindset shift is important to note because real innovation requires clear direction, customer focus, and the right staff to make it happen. 

It’s an investment that can make your company millions, so make sure you treat it like that.