Innovation belongs in the list of “things we are supposed to love”, like Mom, baseball and apple pie. Who doesn’t love a good warm apple pie, or, better yet, a fascinating new ideas that creates a compelling new product or service. The problem with apple pie and innovation is that they are easy to love from a distance, but often require work to create.
The topic this time is about sponsorship. Idea generation can happen without a committed sponsor, but good ideas rarely become new products and services unless some executive sponsors the idea through the shoals of product development and commercialization. How many times has your team generated good ideas, only to see them blocked by other priorities, or worse, unable to attract attention at all? Good ideas without sponsors are like stray dogs – always seeking a home, and always receiving the scraps and leftovers.
What is a “sponsor”?
Generating ideas is perhaps one of the easiest activities known to man. Everyone has some creative spark and can create ideas. The real question is: can we create ideas that matter to someone – that solve a particular need, address a solution gap or create a compelling new offering. Further, even if we can create a compelling new concept, can we move the idea through the machinations of an organization to successfully define, develop and launch the idea? These actions all require the engagement and involvement of a number of people, in disparate functions who aren’t aligned to the same goals. Some one, or some thing, must work to align them, provide resources and funding to advance the idea, and force tradeoffs between everyday work and the work of innovation.
That someone, or something, is an executive sponsor. If an idea has any chance of success to move from generation to commercialization, it needs to matter to someone. That someone may be a product executive who needs to fill a product line gap. It could be someone concerned about customer service who needs a new method to serve customers. It could be the CEO who desires new business models. But someone has to establish the rationale for the need, and support and fly cover for the idea, and provide resources and funding to ensure the idea gets done. Without a sponsor, ideas become zombies. Not quite dead, since they have the glimmer of value, and not quite alive, since no one is willing to advance them.
Finding a Sponsor
Who has a real need for a new product, service or business model? Who is creative enough, or desperate enough, to support and fund an innovation activity from idea generation to product commercialization? Typically, two types of sponsors emerge: those who have vision to see ahead and want to continually create new products and new value, or those who have attempted everything else, and innovation is the last resort. Either type of executive can become a good sponsor, and you’ll find few sponsors who don’t fall into one of these camps. A sponsor is an executive with enough clout, enough formal or informal power, enough funding or enough force of will to see your innovation project to completion. Ideally they are relatively senior executives who have budgets and resources they can provide when others refuse to extend money or people.
What happens without a sponsor
In my ebook I tell a short story about a disruptive innovation project we ran with an innovation team in a financial services organization. The nominal sponsors for the project included the heads of all of the lines of business. Our team created six really compelling new ideas that would offer new services and capabilities to customers, but many of the ideas crossed functional lines. That is, the ideas required different silos to work together to provide a more robust product to the market. But our failing in that regard was ignoring the fact that no one individual could champion the ideas. Now several sponsors had to agree, and share the costs and the rewards. This is commonly known as the failure of the commons. What is a shared resource is often overused or wasted. Without a sponsor, even good ideas can’t be developed or commercialized. There are simply too many competing interests that have internal support, and no one wants to give up their to do list in order to provide resources to a project that doesn’t have a sponsor.
Avoiding the mistake
For any innovation activity, define a charter (as described in the previous post) and demand that a sponsor “sign off” on the effort. If you can’t find a sponsor, don’t move ahead, because you won’t find the pathway easy or obtain the resources you need. If you can get a sign-off from an executive, keep that individual close to the work, so they remain engaged through the entire process. We forget how easy it is for executives, who are bombarded with information, to forget about the importance and rationale of a project, which may lead them to falter in their sponsorship. Especially since innovation projects don’t often happen quickly. Find a sponsor, get their sign-off, keep them engaged, remind them how this project will fill a need or offer a differentiated solution that they want.