Great innovation ideas shouldn’t necessarily mean a big “ask”. Learn more about the methods and tools we use in our internal innovation programmes to help intrapreneurs get their ambitious ideas approved and funded.
In established organisations, often what scares senior leaders more than putting their name behind an innovation project that doesn’t work out is having wasted a lot of time and resources on top of it all. No one wants to be associated with something that didn’t succeed and took a lot of people’s time and money to work on.
Still, innovation remains at the top of the priority list for many leaders of organisations operating in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (or VUCA) business environment.
As an internal innovator or intrapreneur, accepting that innovation is an inherently risky and ambiguous endeavour is important — but formulating a roadmap that is as frugal as it is effective is vital when trying to bring senior leaders or sponsors on-side.
So how do you pitch your innovation idea to senior leaders and get it approved?
Gaining the support of senior leaders in your organisation will help you to secure the resources required, including time, space and money to develop it further.
The key is to manage their expectations and understand the risk assessment from their perspective.
We often see two common patterns:
- Intrapreneurs tend to articulate ROI in a way that is too convoluted; not simple or straightforward enough
- Intrapreneurs tend to ask for more resources than they actually need for the required next steps
Let’s look at why, and what to consider instead.
1 Try and be simple and straightforward when articulating ROI.
Business cases for corporate innovation are never simplistic in reality. In fact, they can often be more complicated to navigate than the business plans for startups.
This is because there are not only the ‘usual’ factors to consider (such as target customer segments, value proposition to them, the revenue model, etc) but also additional elements such as why it’s strategically sensible for the corporate to do it and why it’s within the ‘wheelhouse’ of the corporate to do it.
All of this means an intrapreneur has to be able to articulate various ‘what’s in it for me’ narratives to convince a multitude of stakeholders internally and sometimes externally too.
But one lesson we can learn from startup entrepreneurs is that being as simple, concise and straightforward as possible when pitching or presenting can make a notable difference.
When we helped Aptar Group, a global manufacturing business engaged in the FMCG value chain, to distil a business case for a new way of doing product testing, we helped them evolve the articulation of the return on investment (ROI).
It went from being complicated and convoluted (which was ill-understood when pitched and struggled to galvanise buy-in) to being concise and simple (which was much better understood and sparked support, despite being less detailed or holistic).
In this case, the simplification needed was about moving away from a lofty, grand and longer-term strategic ROI articulation to one that, though still mentioning the ultimate vision, focused more on the specific, shorter term and more tangible business benefits using only one or two well-understood metrics that they knew mattered a lot to stakeholders.
On the other hand, when we supported Pentland Brands (a global sports and fitness apparel and footwear company, home to brands such as Speedo, Ellesse, Canterbury and Berghaus) to develop and validate a portfolio of new digital innovation propositions, we saw that the right way to simplify and strengthen some business cases was to not only consider the short term specifics, but also inspire the leadership with a bolder vision and the more ultimate financial impact.
One key thing to keep in mind is the importance of using metrics as a key tool to communicate your vision in a simple and straightforward way.
A single figure is able to tell a story much better than 100 words. Using a number to quantify the expected business benefit anytime we help intrapreneurs pitch an idea it’s a simple trick that helps them achieve their goals.
This is because metrics help bring alignment across internal team members, making sure everyone is on the same page about what is the ultimate goal, and is inspired by that. A clear impact metric is like a flag on the battlefield, it will fill your team with clarity, comfort and purpose
Metrics also help bring onboard the stakeholders needed to support the project. A clear impact metric is an easy talking point, and ensures everyone understands why they should spend time and effort to help you. We encourage the intrapreneurs we work with to ensure their target metric it’s the first thing they share during any stakeholder meeting.
Finally, metrics help convince your senior leaders on how great your idea is. If you craft your impact metric in a way that resonates with executives, it will help make sure they understand what they will get if they support you. A clear impact metric anchors the senior leader’s attention, and translates your idea into the broader, higher-level perspective they usually work on.
Bottom line? Some senior leaders will want to see bolder, grander and more ambitious articulations. Others may just be keen on the immediate benefits.
Either way, know your audience, and keep it simple by highlighting one or two vital impact metrics and specify clear timeframes.
2 Ask just for the time and resources really needed at this stage.
When we first left home to go to university, we would cook meals without specific recipes and end up making more than enough, with leftovers for days. We like to think that’s human nature — when in doubt, better be safe than sorry!
Over the years, with lots of practice, we now have a much better grasp of ingredient quantities and rarely cook too much anymore.
We’ve seen the same with intrapreneurs. The amount of time, cash, people or tools that intrapreneurs initially believe they need often tends to be overestimated.
When we worked on an innovation programme with the major US retailer, Target, a dozen intrapreneur teams were working on ambitious innovative ideas to improve both in-store customer experience and business processes. Just like any other established organisation, our teams of intrapreneurs were applying an “execution” mode to innovation projects, and wanted to move straight from idea to product development. Execution mode is an approach to work that teams adopt when they have a clear and watertight end-to-end project plan that is not likely to change, but innovation projects are oftentimes exactly the opposite: very likely to change!
Established organisations tend to be set up for execution mode. On reflection, this is probably how most of us have been trained to work.
As a result, the intrapreneurs were invariably asking for many tens of thousands of investment dollars more than they needed to make their ideas real. Some teams had already created an organisational structure chart of full-time resources required to bring the project to completion. It’s easy to see how these pitches wouldn’t have landed appropriately with senior leaders.
The uncertainty and complexity of innovative ideas requires intrapreneurs to embrace a “search’ mode instead, where they adopt a risk-mindful, lean and customer-centric development process more akin to an exploratory journey. This allows organisations to reduce waste and become agile in approach.
Throughout a series of coaching sessions, we helped the teams reformulate their “ask” in a way that reflected the risk implicit with their innovative idea. Just like we would now challenge first-year university students to assess whether they really need to stock up on huge quantities of perishable groceries just to prepare the meals for the upcoming week, we ask the internal innovation teams: what is the minimum amount of resources and budget you need, at this stage, just to prove that your riskiest assumptions are true?
Bottom line? A cardinal rule of early-stage innovation is to challenge yourself by asking: “Could this be done in an even leaner, more frugal, way?”
Therefore, intrapreneurs can maximise their chances of getting the green-light from leaders if they can:
1. Articulate the business case in a simple and straightforward way by highlighting one or two vital metrics and specify clear timeframes.
2. Challenge themselves by asking, “could this be done in an even leaner and more frugal way?”
When we work with intrapreneurs and business leaders, we use the Internal Innovation Roadmap template to guide discussions and frame thinking to ensure that intrapreneurs are as simple and concise as possible without asking for more than is absolutely needed.
At the end of the day, being an intrapreneur is all about showing how you will continually de-risk your idea by evidencing feasibility, viability and scalability.
You have to show this on a roadmap to senior leaders and sponsors, with milestones and clarity on what resources will be needed.
Some questions they are likely to ask are:
- What are your goals?
- What will you be doing with the time you say you need?
- How will you measure success?
- Exactly how much time, cash and man power do you need in order to achieve that?
Our Roadmap template lays out the Goals, Activities, Metrics and Requirements you’ll need. Here’s how we work with it during our innovation programmes.
Start with the longer-term and work your way backwards. What could success look like 18 months from now?
Think of an achievable yet ambitious goal. This will be your clear and straightforward metric that you will communicate broadly.
For example, “The product is available in 10 supermarkets nationwide“, or “10,000 Units are sold by the end of year” or “Operating margin will increase by 5% by 18 months”.
Next, think about what needs to happen to make that goal achievable.
- ACTIVITIES: What will you be doing to support your goal?
For example, perhaps you need a lot of social media marketing or you need to land a channel partner.
- METRICS: How will you measure progress towards reaching your goal? At what point will you know you have succeeded?
For example, is it about the number of supermarkets in which the new product is available? Or the number of units sold? Or increase in operating margin?
- REQUIREMENTS: What resources, partners or assets will you need to support the activities?
For example, you may need a certain amount of time and cash from the company, as well as support from the social media team and access to partners. This is the big “ask”, or what intrapreneurs would normally pitch for if they moved directly into execution mode.
Then, you can go through the same thought process for your short-term goals, which will help you form the basis for your immediate next steps.
- Repeat the process, this time thinking about what goal you want to achieve in the next three months – perhaps validating a key assumption?
- Once the goal is clear, define the activities, the metrics and the requirements in terms of resources, partners or assets needed to achieve the short term goal. This will be your “ask” presented in the pitch to your manager that will help get your idea approved.
After you have worked on the short term, think about the medium-term, to plug the gap in-between.
If at this point you can see that your longer-term goals were too ambitious and not realistic or feasible, they can revise them, to ensure that there is a clear path from short, to medium, to the longer term.
Before we wrap up, let’s take some more time to review a few tips.
- In the short term, the main activities you’ll be doing will still involve validating your key assumptions mostly about desirability and viability
- Keep a close eye on the requirements, and don’t overload them, especially for the short term section, try to be resourceful and frugal. What favours can you ask colleagues and peers? How can you leverage your internal network? The lower the ask, and the bolder the metric, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.
- Inevitably you will discover that your medium and longer-term goals will need to be revised, which is fine. The important thing is to get going and show that you have a path through the uncertainty of bringing a new innovative idea to life.