4 Steps to Get Approval for Your Next Innovation Project25 May, 2018 / Articles
Everyone wants innovation in their company, but getting a new idea implemented can be a challenge, especially when office politics are in play. When you’re trying to get approval for your latest innovation, follow these four steps. First, anticipate resistance. If you know what people might object to, you can plan how you’ll address those concerns. Second, understand what objections are truly about. For example, someone might say they object because of a publicly acceptable reason — say, the project is too costly — when their real concern is political, like they’re afraid their team will lose influence. Third, find a champion for the project. This should be a senior executive whose clout and expertise can help you move the project forward. And fourth, gather a critical mass of supporters. If you have a group of people who believe in the innovation enough to try it, you’ll have social proof that the idea is a good one.
She’d come up with the idea of revamping the company’s inventory management approach by networking together “sleeping” resources. Specifically, she proposed a system that tracked the real-time inventory needs and usage of business units worldwide, located unused inventory in each unit, and arranged delivery of that inventory to where it was needed. The innovation would boost efficiency by taking the excess inventory of one business unit and shipping it to units that had deficits, thereby reducing inventory-carrying costs companywide.
But when Denise approached the business unit executives with this idea, not a single one showed interest.
Luckily, Denise, who was an executive MBA student of mine, took the time to understand the politics of innovation at play, and followed a series of steps to harness these dynamics to her benefit.
The Politics of Innovation
Everyone wants innovation in their organization; it drives growth and revenues, promotes cultural change, and moves society forward.
We often forget, however, that meaningful innovation efforts can have a disruptive side. Namely, some people’s ideas will win, and those of others will lose. That’s because innovation requires allocation and deployment of organizational resources, often significant amounts, without definitive proof of future returns. This ambiguity allows politics to enter into the choice process, as people attempt to influence decision-makers toward favoring innovations that advance their individual interests.
Thus, when early-stage innovations or those that need to be implemented to collect performance data lack hard performance evidence, politics tend to preserve the current state of power and control over physical and social resources. For example, interviews with managers of established technology hardware firms showed that their resource-allocation processes favored sustaining innovations (those that had high margins and targeted large, well-known markets and customers) over disruptive innovations (those that had yet to generate hard evidence on their benefits).4
The good news is that those interested in promoting innovation can use these politics to work for them, as Denise did in four steps.
Step 1: Anticipate Resistance
Part of the motivation for innovation is the constant clamor within organizations — especially from leadership — for original, creative ideas. “Think outside the box” has become a ubiquitous directive, aimed at spurring off-the-beaten-path strategies, tactics, and viewpoints, whether related to products, operations, or marketing.
But in most cases, the resources needed to back innovation have already been deployed or earmarked for existing agenda items. Diverting any significant portion of those already-dedicated resources to your new idea might jeopardize existing initiatives’ chances for success. This dilemma can result in resistance or apathy for your idea — even among those who really like it — because people can’t afford to prematurely pull the plug on an initiative they already have a stake in.
That’s exactly what happened to Denise when she first proposed her efficiency idea to the firm’s business unit heads. They were immediately dismissive, citing the high transaction costs of processes like coordinating the different part numbers used across different units. The idea appeared dead on arrival. After all, even the most promising innovations are unlikely to be adopted if they threaten the success of current initiatives and investments that leaders must show returns on. But Denise’s innovation gained new life later when she tied the idea more clearly to an existing corporate agenda at the firm.
If you know what people might object to then you can position your innovation strategically: as something new and creative, but not as a resource-depleting departure from the organization’s existing agenda. That is, you can make the idea “just fresh enough.” This approach provides supporters with a direct benefit of adopting your new idea.
Step 2: Unmask Political Motives
The second step is to reconcile publicly stated resistance to your idea with its true, hidden motivation.
When politics are part of the decision process, colleagues may not present all the real reasons they oppose your innovation. Instead they’ll offer publicly acceptable reasons — a presentable “mask” that often has to do with practical considerations such as costs, time, or complexity, but not reasons that reveal clearly their individual interests.