Imagine you’re planning a vacation for your family. It’s going to be 5 days, and you’re taking your children and your parents, and everyone is psyched. As the planner, you’re so deeply invested in making sure this is the vacation to end all vacations that you choose amazing hotels you think everyone will love. You plan one day at Yosemite, one day at the Grand Canyon, one day in Chicago, one day in New York City, and one day at Disney World. And of course, it’s a disaster.
You spend half of the vacation traveling, you’re not in any one place long enough to enjoy it, and no one in your family even asked to go to any of these places in the first place - they just wanted to go to the beach!
You wouldn’t plan a vacation that way, but that’s how we often end up running innovation efforts. By its very nature, corporate innovation is meant to cast a wide net. Innovation teams are tasked with anything from internal productivity improvements to changes in current customer experience to new products, new industries, or new business models. As freeing as these wide-open charters are, they often lead to what I think of as “Innovation FOMO,” which, if not recognized and guarded against, leads to outcomes as scattered and difficult to execute as our ridiculous family vacation.
We’re all familiar with the Fear of Missing Out, being afraid that everyone else out there is having more fun than we are. Innovation FOMO is similar: it is a deep-seated fear that you are missing out on THE NEXT BIG THING, the technological or business disruption that will change everything for your company, and maybe even the world.
Fear drives unproductive behaviors, whether in business or elsewhere, and Innovation FOMO is no different.
The good news? There is a cure for Innovation FOMO: focus.
Focus means being strategic and intentional about how you apply your resources and the outcomes you want to achieve.
Focus forces some key behaviors for success: Defining and adhering to goals and vision, prioritizing ruthlessly, and creating constraints that allow creativity and truly new thinking to bloom.
Focus doesn’t mean eliminating or ignoring areas for innovation. Rather, it means being strategic and intentional about how you apply your resources and the outcomes you want to achieve. We advocate taking three key steps to gain focus and avoid Innovation FOMO:
- Map Out Areas of Opportunity
- Align on Strategic Priorities
- Get Agile with Backlog Management
1. Map Out Areas of Opportunity
Just as you wouldn’t plan a vacation by choosing a hotel before you choose a country and city, you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, plan innovation activities without mapping out the areas of opportunity. We’re not looking for solutions yet. Rather we’re establishing all the arenas where there is potential for change.
To map out these areas, start your innovation process not with ideation but with a broad survey of the landscape that gives both your team and stakeholders as complete a picture of the state of your customers, your company, and your industry as possible. The time and investment required to do this will pay dividends in providing you with a big picture view that helps you decide where to start.
This research effort could be defined many ways, but a few major areas I would be sure to include are:
- Your customer base: How are they they working today, what is going well for them, and what’s keeping them up at night?
- Any innovation efforts in progress at your own company: What projects are being planned or are currently underway?
- Your vendors: What are they seeing in the industry right now, and how are they preparing for the future?
- Your competitors: Who’s out there and what are they doing?
- Technologies and trends: What’s new in your industry and beyond?
- Analogous industries: What is happening in industries that face similar challenges, serve similar customers, or have similar business models?
To gather the kinds of information that will be the most useful to you, you’ll need the right people, and they may be different people than those who will ideate or execute the ideas. It needs to be people who know how to interview customers and vendors, research competitors and industries, and organize, synthesize, and analyze that information. Your information will only be as good as the team putting it together.
The outcome: The insights that you draw from this landscape map will help you identify key themes or areas of opportunity, which could be anything from customer pain points, outdated technologies or processes, or technological or industry trends.
2. Align on Strategic Goals
One sign of Innovation FOMO is the broad charter and instruction to the innovation team to look far and wide for innovation opportunities, even (or especially) if they are outside the company’s current areas of expertise. The freedom is often seen as a gift, as a show of confidence, an unshackling from constraints, and empowerment to think big and differently.
A very real danger – and an avoidable one – is that expectations between the leadership team and the innovation team will be mismatched. When the innovation team is bringing their carefully crafted ideas back to stakeholders for approval or further funding, it’s possible, and even likely, that what they bring back may be wildly different than the priorities that stakeholders are working toward every day. Both sides are set up for disappointment: stakeholders potentially see nothing that helps them steer the company to where it needs to go, and innovators see their hard work underappreciated, diminished, or even shut down.
Strategic alignment is not optional. It ensures that when you start down the road of ideation and execution, your activities have the best possible chance of success and organization-wide support. That, however, doesn’t come easy - corporate stakeholders at the highest level possible must be actively engaged and supportive, and the innovation team must be willing to put aside pet priorities for what will strategically move the company forward.
Strategic alignment ensures that when you start down the road of ideation and execution, your activities have the best possible chance of success and organization-wide support.
So how do you achieve strategic alignment? Use the areas of opportunity identified in the broad survey as a basis for working collaboratively with stakeholders and the innovation team in a strategic alignment meeting or workshop. That time together is an invaluable opportunity to establish:
- Current company revenue and market goals,
- goals and vision for the innovation team,
- and how the areas of opportunity map to the collective goals
(A side benefit of this exercise is that it ensures your company’s innovation isn’t us vs. them, or stakeholders vs. innovation team!)
The outcome: At the end of the strategic alignment meetings or workshops, you should have a few areas for opportunity identified as strategically important to pursue first. The other areas of opportunity are never lost or cut - they’re simply de-prioritized for the moment until the team revisits the strategic alignment. This shouldn’t be a one-time activity. Aim for yearly at a minimum.
3. Get Agile with Backlog Management
Although product development and innovation management are very different, there are some striking similarities and lessons to learn, particularly around “agile” thinking. Agile is a wide-ranging and comprehensive concept, but for the purposes here, I’ll concentrate on a small piece of it.
The agile movement started as a response to waterfall management, which assumes you know everything you possibly need to know at the beginning of a project and nothing will change until the end of that project. Recognizing that, in reality, conditions change all the time and that teams are learning as they go, agile management advocates breaking work into shippable, testable pieces.
One agile artifact that is vital for innovation teams is the backlog. A backlog is simply a list of, in the case of software development, user-centered pieces of functionality that are stack-rank ordered by priority to develop. The backlog is regularly groomed: Items are added, re-prioritized, or removed based on what the team knows at the moment.
Successful innovation teams work in a similar way. As you get rolling, new ideas will be coming in, other ideas will suddenly seem not-so-important anymore, and conditions in your company or in your industry will change. A backlog and a regular process of grooming gives you a wonderful way to embrace that constant state of change.
The outcome: Your backlog will be a list of ideas that you have prioritized based on strategic alignment, readiness to execute, and likely other factors that are specific to your team and company. All ideas on the list don’t need to be defined at the same level of granularity - the ones at the top of the list should be better defined and the ones toward the end of backlog can be more loosely defined. You should have a regular cadence of backlog grooming that your team works through together.
Corporate innovation is so new that everyone is learning the best way to manage and measure it as they go. Innovation FOMO is a by-product of this newness: Everyone wants impressive results and to make a difference. The FOMO itself is natural and not a problem. Awareness of it allows you to manage it effectively.
As in so many areas of life, it’s not by spreading yourself thin that you get the best results, but rather by focusing and giving your full attention to the right things at the right time. You can identify what those things are by mapping the landscape, aligning strategically, and managing your innovation backlog with flexibility.