Jan 23, 2020

5 Insightful Questions Leading Innovation Executives Are Asking

Sarah Bruner

Sarah Bruner

5 Insightful Questions Leading Innovation Executives Are Asking

Innovation is a top priority for many organizations. How to innovate, what makes innovations successful, and how to measure innovation are all burning questions that innovation executives are tasked with answering. Finding these answers can be challenging but searching them out without learning from the experience of others can be even more difficult.

That’s why we created the Strategic Forum Program. These groups bring together executives from across industries to learn from each other in an environment built on deep relationships and shared challenges.

Our Executive Innovation group gathers leaders from a wide variety of industries to share their experiences around common challenges. During the last 18 months we’ve discussed a wide variety of topics from how to create an innovative culture to what makes a great innovation hire.

We’ve shared five powerful topics and thought-provoking questions below that led to beneficial discussions with the group:

1. Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Question: Instead of leaving teams to their own interpretation of an innovation culture, how do leaders influence an organization’s culture to drive innovation?

Asking an organization to innovate without first laying the groundwork of an innovation-centric culture is a recipe for disaster. Just buying a pingpong table and telling teams to “fail fast” won’t do it either. A recent Harvard Business Review article lists three keys for creating an innovative culture: give employees demanding projects that match their skills, be intentional with which employee gets which project, and aim for 70% success. A Fast Company article explains that listening, staying open, collaborating, maintaining a flat structure, and embracing failure are also critical to develop an innovative organization.

2. Perfecting the Innovation Handoff

Question: How does your organization transition a project from the innovation team to the product team in a way that positions the project for success in market?

There is no shortage of great ideas at organizations, but not many of them are launched successfully or get a passing grade once in market. A recent survey of 164 executives at companies with more than $1 billion in revenue found that 26% of respondents said the handoff from the innovation or R&D group to the business unit “needs serious work” at their company. Another 16% described it as “terrible,” and said “they’d seen multiple projects wither following the hand-off to a business unit.” The majority of respondents admitted there was room for improvement.

The handoff of an innovative idea from the innovation team to the business is critical and can make or break an innovation’s success. Many organizations struggle to find tools that ease the potential misfunction of this handoff. Some loan the innovation employee to the product team or have detailed information that receives buy-in from the product team during the handoff. Even still the passion and buy-in from the innovation team is not always embraced by the next step in the organization. Finding a way to perfect this handoff can pay dividends when the project is finally launched.

3. Design Thinking in Action

Question: As innovation executives, how can you create a culture of design thinking through the innovation organization and the broader business at large?

Organizations are reacting to the increasing complexity of modern technology and business. And simplicity seems to pay dividends with keeping customers. A Harvard Business Review study revealed that “decision simplicity” was the biggest driver of stickiness in a survey of more than 7,000 consumers. A leading way to maintain simplicity and customer-centricity is through design thinking.

Design thinking blends a user-focused mindset and an iterative process to produce high quality, consistent innovation. Three key principles that are collectively known as design thinking are empathy with users, discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure. Utilizing this in different ways throughout the organization can drive the simplicity that innovation executives are striving for.

4. Finding and Training Top Innovation Talent

Question: How can organizations and higher education institutions partner to create well-rounded individuals to fill innovation roles in companies?

The search for qualified talent is intense and never more so than in an age of technological disruption. Not only do new employees need to have the necessary skills and be a culture-fit, now employers are looking for candidates who are able to “propose innovation-oriented business concepts that generate new growth.” But how are higher education institutions preparing students to be innovative, high-value employees? A 2015 IBM study states that “nearly 60% [of survey respondents] believe [higher education] fails to meet the needs of industry.” It is critical to human capital needs in a changing economy that higher education institutions and businesses find ways to work together to produce graduates who have both the hard skills and the innovation mindset to help industries succeed.

5. The Dangers of Minimal Viable Product

Question: How can your organization avoid the minimum viable product (MVP) pitfalls and gather beneficial feedback from the marketplace?

A Harvard Business Review article argues that a minimal viable product can quickly fall into a “mediocre value proposition” that doesn’t receive true feedback from the marketplace. Utilizing user research that tracks along with your key performance indicators can help you gather market insight that validates or disproves an MVP. And either result is beneficial to making the decision to move forward or not. Making sure you are in the right phase of innovation to use an MVP or answering the right question with an MVP is critical. You might find out that you should be creating a proof of concept or prototype instead!

What Is Your Innovation Challenge?

Thinking through these topics can help you grow as an Innovation Executive. Try analyzing your own organization through these lenses to see how you can drive growth.

Sharing experiences in a trust-based, non-selling environment without fees or sponsors is the key to this group’s success. If you’re interested in learning more, please reach out Sarah Bruner at

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