Three Tips for When Senior Leaders Don't Want To Innovate

When I meet with people who are passionate about innovation within their organisation, I’m met with a common emotion.


These innovation heroes want to see a true innovation culture developed within the business they are part of. They long for training across the board, resources set-aside for the building of new offerings, and rock-solid processes to give innovation a chance.

And yet they are often met by strong resistance from senior leaders. People say, “They just don’t get it!” “The board say they’re not ready for it.” “They don’t see how important this is.”

These people feel blocked - wanting to improve innovation, but not encouraged or allowed within their own organisation. Eventually, they give up - or move to a business that seems more conducive.

It’s frustrating for these individuals - and yet, often the problem isn’t innovation. It’s how they're speaking about innovation, and presenting it to senior leaders.

Board members and senior leaders are, almost by nature, risk averse. They are used to living in the world of strategy and numbers. They love to compete, with winnable bets. 

And the way that innovation is often presented to them is in unclear terms, with unclear outcomes - and no scientific grounding supporting the proposal. 

So, I offer three simple bits of advice to frustrated innovators, to help them encourage their leaders to join them on the process.

1) Speak Their Language

Leaders are responsible for many areas, and humans have developed fantastic ways of simplifying complex scenarios for easy digestion. How?

Through using numbers and graphs.

Nations run censuses to get an understanding of the economic, social and housing reality of their country. Students are assessed numerically, so education providers and teachers can be measured for their effectiveness - and to identify areas of improvement. Businesses measure financials, satisfaction cultures, throughput - and more - with numbers, and represent their organisation through charts.

Numbers and graphs are the language of many leaders - as it allows them to take in a situation in a glance, identify areas for improvement, and plan an action accordingly.

Many innovation heroes approach their leaders with a vague plan for improving innovation, stories of successes from conferences, or ideas from the latest book. As good as they may be - they aren’t coming in the language of leaders.

Instead, if you can communicate the reality through numbers, and highlight how this can be improved with forecasted numbers - you’ll have their attention.

How do you do this?

There are a range of simple metrics you can create, such as annual R&D budget as a percentage of annual sales, number of patents filed in the past year, total R&D headcount or budget as a percentage of sales, number of ideas submitted by employees or the percentage of sales from products introduced in the past 3 year(s).

The Internet is full of advice on helpful metrics - simple, that are easy to capture and graph.

Speaking innovation with numbers resonates with senior leaders, and is a simple way to reduce blockages to bigger innovation efforts.

2) Show Them.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders do not get to spend much time with customers or finished product. Instead, they rely on reports through the chain - to give them the snapshot required for decision making.

When these same senior leaders can see their customers struggling with a problem, frustrated with a product, or trialling a prototype - the results can be fantastic.

I’ve helped organisations organise mini-tours for senior leaders, getting them to briefly meet and interact with their customers. These mini-tours were big-hinges for innovative change within the organisation.

One mini-tour saw a senior leader meet with five different customers - and he was astounded to see that each customer used their same, simple FMCG product in five different ways. This led to a recognition of an opportunity to diversify their product offering, and add value for the business and the customer.

Another mini-tour saw a senior leader - who had begrudgingly come along - witness their users first-hand frustration with their service. Within minutes, they were a changed leader. They insisted on organising an ideation session to improve their offering - with fantastic, user-centred results.

So - organise a mini-tour for your leaders. Or, if they dig their toes in - go and film your customers (with their permission!). Show them using the product, their frustrations and joys - or their responses to how things could be improved.

Remember - these customers can be internal employees. This doesn’t need to cost the earth, but must show the leaders the real world.

3) Bring in the Competition.

Many senior leaders thrive on competing. They want to know how others are doing - and how they stack up next to them.

This is where innovation benchmarking can be a fantastic approach to help encourage senior leaders to up-skill the organisation in their innovation capabilities.

Time and time again - I have seen senior leaders’ eyes light up when I bring up their benchmarked score. They delight in seeing their top capabilities, and how they match up on a global scale. And they rise to the challenge when they see their weaknesses, and how far they are behind the global average.

Almost across the board - they begin planning and strategising their improvement. It’s not just the numbers that trigger this - it’s how their numbers compare to others.

There’s a range of innovation benchmarks - I’ve tended to utilise KEYS, due to its academic foundation (developed out of Harvard University) and its large database (well over 80,000 respondents). 

If you’re feeling frustrated with innovation at your organisation - be encouraged. You’re not alone - and there’s some simple approaches you can utilise to help gain senior leaders’ support for your innovation initiatives. Give these a trial - and let me know the results you find!