The Politics of Innovation

Published by Grahame Cox on

With the US elections imminent, the autumn statement on its way, Brexit negotiations just around the corner…… innovators need to be politicians too

The thing I love about innovation is its ability to take me into all areas of business. Great innovation projects need a good knowledge of, and connections with, marketing, insight, finance, manufacturing, sales, strategy, operations, sales order planning, IT……….. This is the upside of innovation – endless variety and the opportunity to develop your skills everyday in multiple business disciplines. And because your best innovation projects will touch just about every part of the business, as an innovator you have to align, win over, convince so many different people with different agendas – in short, you have to be a master politician! OK, so it’s not exactly the same as being the Prime Minister; after all its politics with a small ‘p’ rather than a capital ‘P’, but it is a skill you have to have in your toolbox.

I would have thought (perhaps naively) that most politicians get into Politics to make a difference. For me, the same is true of innovation. Much like politics, success doesn’t come from having ideas, but in making those ideas a reality. Innovation is about growth and adding value. It’s about steering your ideas through the maze of processes, hurdles, challenges to get a real product, finally, into the hands of consumers…. to make a difference, to make money. As someone once said, ‘If you have a creative idea and it doesn’t create value, its not innovation, it’s art”. Innovators shouldn’t in the art business.

To be an innovator you need resilience, tenacity. It’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. It frustrates me to see how much front-end innovation never gets beyond the front-end. It’s not that there isn’t a good idea in there. It’s not that it isn’t a profitable idea. It’s not that it isn’t and idea based on a great insight….. it’s simply down to the fact that no-one has put the necessary time and effort in to drive that idea through the funnel, manage the politics and have the conviction to drive it through to completion. Perhaps everyone thought it was someone else’s responsibility.

It’s interesting to work with smaller organisations or single-handed entrepreneurs. They quickly discover that the only way to get their idea to market is to shepherd it through these challenges themselves. In a small business, there isn’t ever ‘someone else’ to drive the project. It’s you or nothing.

When I ran the innovation team in a large international organisation, I spent a lot of my time politicking. Some might find this frustrating, but I loved it! There’s a real sense of satisfaction in aligning different points of view, overcoming challenges, defeating the ‘that’s not the way we do things that way around here’ barriers, securing finance, dealing with personal agendas……….. maybe it was more like being the Prime Minister than I thought!

So, if you want to be a successful innovator, you have to have resilience, tenacity, a dogged determination to bring about change, charm and diplomacy when necessary and the skill to know when to fight for your idea and when to back away. In short, you need to be a politician…….. or you’ll just end up being an artist!