You need an executive sponsor. Let me say that again: you need an executive sponsor. This is non-negotiable. In fact, you really need more than one executive sponsor. Based on my experience, the number one killer of innovation labs and innovation programs is losing their executive sponsor. I have seen this far too many times.
It doesn’t matter if your program is doing well or flailing – without an executive sponsor, your days are numbered.
If you are looking to start a program, before you do anything, get an executive sponsor. You don’t have to build up a huge case for it, since it’s almost impossible to show an ROI on possible future innovation unless you are already showing an ROI on current innovation efforts. Put together a short deck describing the program that you want to set up and pitch it to your most receptive boos who can run it up the chain. Be persistent, and eventually you should find an executive sponsor. If you can’t find one in the C-Suite, you still may have a chance to start a smaller program, but your chances of success are lower. If you can’t find a sponsor no matter how hard you try, then I have some bad news for you. Your company may not be ready or able to run an innovation program. If you are still interested in running an innovation program, you may need to scale it down to your group. You may even have to leave your company. There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to drag a company into a more innovative culture if the top is not ready for it.
If your program is already running and you have a sponsor, that’s great. Take my advice: get more. These days, in fact in any days, in my experience the moment there is any uncertainty about the markets, the company or its future, then the first thing to go is the innovation program. Innovation is considered a “nice to have” and only seems to flourish in good times, and is almost always cut in lean times, (or even if lean times are on the horizon) so if you really want your program or lab to live on, no matter what happens, you will need to spread the sponsorship duties across a number of people. Additionally, with all of the M&A activity and executive shuffling that tends to go on in some larger organizations, it is always a good idea to have more than one sponsor at the top.
If you had a sponsor and have recently lost them, maybe they’ve been reassigned, or maybe let go, or maybe they’ve left the company and you currently have no sponsor, you should be prepared for the program to either be shuttered, or try your hardest to get a new sponsor as soon as possible. An innovation program without a executive sponsor likely has a short shelf life.
Why is this? When everyone keeps saying that innovation is so important to an organization, you might think, so do I really need a sponsor?
The issue is that, no matter how well you attempt to integrate your innovation function into the culture of your organization, there will always be factions within your company who are ready to kick you out of the organization or shut you down. The organizations which find all innovation non-threatening are few are far between. You can always tell those organizations because even their own organizational structures can be innovative. If you are seeing a standard ordinary org chart in your organization, then there is a good chance that someone out there still wants to shut you down.