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To Avoid an Innovation Identity Crisis, Know Who You’re Not

One of the common traps we see organizations fall into when defining their innovation strategy is misalignment amongst key stakeholders on the underlying innovation philosophy for the organization. To be clear, we say innovation philosophy, we’re not talking about debating endless hypotheticals while looking up at the clouds. We’re talking about a set of attributes that clarify the organization’s authentic and unique approach to innovation—and how they evaluate its success.

The Innovation Identity Crisis

However, getting a group of opinionated leaders to align on something so existential is easier said than done. Perhaps you can relate to the swirl of having a stakeholder group that genuinely wants to create a strategy that everyone can align to, but each person has a fundamentally different point of view on what kind of innovation to pursue:

  • Disrupt or double down on the core business?
  • Acquire or build?
  • Adopt tech or invent it?

We call this misalignment an innovation identity crisis, and many leadership teams find themselves here when there isn’t a clear organizational innovation philosophy in place.

But how to you avoid the swirl of subjectivity when defining something as existential as your innovation identity and philosophy?

Start With Who You’re Not

By clarifying the attributes that you want to avoid and having clear examples of how they show up at other organizations, you can accelerate your stakeholder alignment conversations. Bringing examples and edges to your stakeholders and leaders for feedback is a more effective entry point to the conversation than asking a big open-ended question like, “What should our innovation philosophy be?” You’re more likely to get some quick alignment and momentum by starting with the What’s Out list, which will put you in a better place for gathering input on the What’s In list to draft your philosophy.

The Avoid and Aspire Framework

So what does starting with who you aren’t look like in action? We use a version of this Avoid and Aspire framework in our projects as a starting point with client teams. Download a copy and follow these steps to use it on your own or in a workshop setting:

Step 1: Gather sources of inspiration.

We like to include a mix of well known companies and a few wild cards. You’ll need to know enough about each source to capture their strategies and tactics, but nobody needs to be an expert on the industry or history.

Step 2: Identify their attributes.

For each source of inspiration, capture key strategic principles or tactics they use to innovate. These should be publicly known attributes in action. The more specific you can be, the better.

Step 3: Document attributes to avoid.

This is your essential prompt for defining who you aren’t. For each attribute you put in the “avoid” category, give a brief rationale for why that’s something you want to avoid as an organization.

If you were using Taco Bell as inspiration, for example, you may choose to avoid culture-defining products or single physical location for innovation.

Step 4: Consider aspirational attributes.

There may be qualities and tactics that you do want to include in your philosophy. For each attribute in the “aspire” category, capture how you see the attribute being adapted or playing out in your organization.

For example, many organizations might aspire to Taco Bell’s attributes of commitment to funding innovation or shared expectation that most experiments will fail.

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Still feeling like you’re in a drama and a tragedy?

Don’t overthink this activity. The Avoid and Aspire Framework is meant to get you started, unstuck, and facilitate better conversations. You don’t need to jump to a hard commit on the attributes. Rather, the goal should be to get a short list of attributes of your philosophy that can become a first prototype you can begin socializing for builds and buy-in.

And, if you’re in need of additional help facilitating alignment on your innovation strategy, send us a note to set up a discovery call with one of our team leads.

The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy that works with leaders to deeply understand stakeholders, co-create innovative solutions, and rapidly experiment to de-risk investment decisions. Erin Lamberty is our Director of Strategy & Culture Change at the organization and is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

See something that resonates with a project or challenge you’re working on? Shoot her a note at [email protected]. She’d love to connect.

Erin Lamberty
[email protected]

Erin Lamberty is a Director at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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