Expert's Opinion

Does Your 'Innovation Emperor' Help or Hinder the Process?

By Robert F. Brands, | August 9, 2010

Robert F. Brands explains why, sometimes, innovation doesn't happen.

In their pursuit of sustainable innovation, many otherwise enlightened companies follow a path destined to fail. They install someone to manage new product development or innovation. They set up a tangle of rules. And they select only the “best” ideas for further development.

Then they wonder why innovation doesn’t happen.

Ours is an industry that thrives upon innovation, and this recent study from The Nielsen Company is a gem—truly instructive. The study shows that companies with acknowledged, successful innovation practices also have limited involvement from senior management. The teams are guided, but freed of stifling controls.

With the premise, “Manage Ideas Lightly, Manage Process Precisely,” this study of 30 top consumer and package goods companies found that ideation and new product development must be structured, but unconstrained. The companies enjoyed 80 percent more new product revenue when senior executives were less involved in managing innovation. The study also found that the companies realized 130 percent more new product revenue with less rigid “stage gates” or measurable reporting goals along the way.

“One of the keys to successful new product innovation is to manage new ideas lightly,” said Tom Agan, the Nielsen senior vice president and managing director who presented “Renovating Innovation” at Nielsen's Consumer 360 conference recently. “While we don’t dispute senior management’s strengths and good intentions, they are often too quick to get involved in the creative process, especially when things are not going well, and their mere presence can stifle free-thinking and boundaryless ideas -- which can doom the new product development process to failure.”

In my recent book, "Robert's Rules of Innovation," we note that meddling leadership can stifle the innovation process. Any and all ideas should be welcomed, from the inside as well as outside, and fed into an innovation Idea Hopper, where they can be further developed, if not in the near-term, then when market conditions or forces allow for such development. As Agan also noted in his report, stage gates and scorecards are needed to measure results, as long as they don’t stifle the process.

In fact, observation and measurement is essential to effective innovation. Such deliberate focus provides consistency and keeps teams on target and accountable, through careful pruning of ideas.

The challenge for the CIO or “Innovation Emperor,” remains to encourage hearty pursuit of innovation – without meddling by others with full plates and agendas that run counter to the very premise of the firm’s stated innovation goals. Such misalignment can kill innovation.

The inspired Emperor must lead the charge, align teams – and their agendas – with innovation objectives. Such a leader builds consensus, anticipates and removes conflicts, and, thus, ensures success.

In the end, the Emperor will preside over an empire where ideas thrive, goals are met, and innovation blossoms.

About the Author

Robert Brands is the president and founder of, and the author, with Martin Kleinman, of Robert’s Rules of Innovation, published by John Wiley & Sons.

Related End-User Markets: