By Tristan Kromer

Every innovation needs funding, and the place most teams go in a large organization is an innovation board. These boards, usually composed of senior members of the organization, are responsible for allocating resources, people, and money to innovation projects.

 

Innovation boards always have less information than the team. Let the team decide when to pivot.

 

These investment decisions are critical, so board members try to get it right. They want projects to succeed, so most (but sadly not all) board members will go out of their way to give teams the support they need. But sometimes, the same experience that got the board members their current roles actually gets in the way of good decisions.

We Tried It Before

Experience is a good thing.

As senior members of the organization, board members often have a long track record of making excellent decisions. That’s how they got a seat on the board.

In many cases, they have real experience with innovation. They’ve seen things that work and they’ve seen things that didn’t work. So board members can be forgiven for having an opinion.

After all, almost every innovation has been tried before. Most things we think of as new and innovative are really just improvements on existing products. So it’s not uncommon for a board member to have seen the exact same innovation several times before and have strong opinions on why it didn’t work, why it won’t work, or what to do to make it work.

But are those strong opinions always valid?

Timing Is Everything

A tweet is just an online postcard.

Spotify is just the Telharmoium (patented in 1897!).

Even CRISPR, a revolutionary technology to edit genes, is just doing what dog breeders have been doing for centuries. Crispr is a decidedly more elegant solution, but selective breeding works wonders in terms of genetic manipulation. How do you think a ferocious wolf became a rather useless pug?

(Honestly, I pity most VCs who have to hear the same idea over and over again from an enthusiastic entrepreneur who thinks they’re the next Steve Jobs.)

New technology offers us new solutions, but sometimes those solutions don’t work out. Customers can reject new solutions because the current solutions work well. Or the cost to switch to something new is high and people are lazy. But market demands change over time. A novel technological solution that failed five years ago might be a great idea now.

The timing of launching an innovation project is critical. Too soon and new products can struggle with market adoption. Too late and competitors have crowded the market. Blockbuster’s streaming service came out well before Netflix and utterly failed. Even Netflix’s streaming launch struggled to gain early traction. They were both too early.

The more innovative the idea, the less your prior experience will apply. Click To Tweet

Twenty years of experience is great, but are the customers from 20 years ago the same customers as today?

So any time an innovation team presents a new idea, “We tried it before,” is not a valid reason to say “no.” It is a valid reason to ask, “What’s different this time?” “How has the market changed?” “Is this the right moment for this idea?”

Innovation board members need to be careful and think twice before dismissing something they tried before.

When Suggestions Aren’t Suggestions

Board members are also full of ideas. Lots of experience means lots of ideas about what the customers want, what features to build, and even what color the logo should be.

Coming up with lots of ideas or offering alternative options is great. A diverse board with diverse perspectives can often offer innovators a view – or several – they hadn’t yet considered. Innovation teams should, of course, consider those ideas as input. As a general rule, the more ideas the better the ultimate output.

Even a bad idea can trigger a good idea. If your family is having a tough time coming up with ideas for dinner, suggest something horrible. Offer “broccoli and ice cream”  and the group will quickly come up with better ideas.

So board members should feel free to make suggestions, but make sure they are understood as suggestions and not decisions.

Senior members of the organizations carry a lot of authority in their titles and in their bearing. Sometimes, a small suggestion can be misinterpreted as an order. So it’s important to differentiate between great suggestions and commands when making them.

Separate Ideation

Or better yet, just don’t make them. Innovation board members shouldn’t spend valuable meeting minutes telling anecdotes or ideating on which shade of blue to use for the “Buy Now” button. If you’re on an innovation board and you’ve got a great idea, or previous experience to offer, don’t do it in the board meeting.

Each team typically has a limited amount of time – less than 15 minutes. The purpose of the board meeting is to decide if the team has identified and prioritized the right risks, has a plan to eliminate those risks, and has a funding request proportional to those risks. Keep the ideation out of the meeting.

Simply take 10 seconds to mention that you have additional input that may be valuable, and then arrange to meet the team later. No one else on the board needs to know why you think blue is a better color for the logo.

Making this a separate meeting can save time in the board meeting, but also set up a more collegial environment where it isn’t a board member giving advice, but instead a colleague just coming up with ideas.

Use Your Experience

Everyone has their role to play.

The team’s job is to generate ideas and then evaluate which one is correct by getting real data from the real world. In other words, the team prioritizes risks and eliminates them through testing.

The team generates data, and the innovation board distributes resources to fund that process. It is the data from the experiments that tells the board what to do. The board’s role is really quite passive. They allow the data to make the decision about how resources are distributed.

So use experience. Use it to identify risks. Or even use it to generate ideas outside of the meeting. But don’t use experience as an excuse to say no.

 

Lessons Learned

  • Focus innovation board meetings on risks and resources.
  • Contribute additional input and opinions outside of the meeting.
  • Experience can be a liability in innovation.

Thanks to Susie Braam for early feedback on this post.

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