The politics of innovation

Business, Partner Content, Technology | Mon 29 Jan | Author – Business & Finance

Innovation is not just technical, it’s political. Here’s how to win votes for your innovation agenda…


Innovation is inescapable in today’s world, but some folks just aren’t comfortable with change. Innovation that works generally involves simple, smart solutions to pressing problems, or solutions that make business processes simpler, faster or flow better. If the innovation is right it should be a no-brainer to get on board with it, but there can be resistance.

Resistance to a project will threaten it; while some innovation projects may fail because the technology isn’t right, others will never take off because of managerial and organisational issues. How the process is introduced and communicated, and how people across various sectors of the business are engaged, can greatly affect their buy-in to the process.


The politics of innovation can be tricky, as the innovation process may necessarily involve some disruption. Just because things have always been done a certain way is not a reason that things should always be done that way. However, there can be an attachment to the status quo, which can come from a very deep involvement with the ‘old ways’.

“The old way, let’s not forget, was once a new way, and the team that championed that through originally may still be in the company and attached to their baby – they won’t be too happy when you tell them their baby is ugly!” advises Brian Martin, Head of Strategy and Planning at eir business.


In a paper entitled The politics of innovation: Why innovations need a godfather, author DJ Smith discusses how to avoid the problems of resistance to innovation, suggesting that “individuals who take on specific roles can play an important part in avoiding these problems. These roles include the technological gatekeeper, the product champion and the sponsor/coach.”

Smith continues, “In addition to these roles… there is another, namely that of godfather. With this role a highly-respected, senior figure within an organisation provides support that is critical in ensuring the project overcomes the hurdles that lie in the path of any major new development.”

The role of the champion is another interesting part of the jigsaw. What the champion must do is vital in what is termed ‘securing social proof’. Before you have any hard data to prove an innovation is working effectively or creating efficiencies, social proof involves getting enough trusted people to champion the project. This is where it really gets political.

Essentially, if enough people we trust believe in something, we are more likely to believe in it as well – a premise that results in humans’ herd instinct. We have a tendency to follow the crowd when a situation is ambiguous and we believe another may have a more accurate insight – which leads to many a dubious trend taking off, from flares to fidget spinners. Humans like to align themselves with those in the know about the latest thing.


It’s important to anticipate resistance for very genuine reasons, as resources may need to be deployed away from other projects in order to get the innovation off the ground, be that budgetary, or the time of the team involved, taking them away from working on other areas.

With a battle for time and resources, there will be winners and losers, and without real concrete proof, when an idea is at the concept stage, the strongest influencer will emerge victorious.

It is only natural as humans to favour preserving the status quo – sticking to the current allocation of resources rather than making sweeping changes without evidence to support them.

It’s a widely-held belief that a cross-functional team should be involved in overseeing the development of any innovation project, with opinions from end users, technical leads, the business and operations side, i.e., seek diversity on your teams and try not to build all-engineer or all-MBA teams.

The broader the team, the more champions you have across the different areas of the business. These champions can be the cheerleaders for the idea in their departments.


Apart from this, getting the right mix of people will lead to better innovation outcomes – researchers have found that innovation thrives when expert users (for example involving doctors on a surgical instruments project) make up about 40% of an invention team. Any less and the company will lose sight of what its customers need; any more and the group will tend to converge on old ideas – expert users tend to know very well how to help a company optimise its product but don’t know how to invent something that was never invented before.

The opinion of expert users carries weight and provides a trustworthy source of feedback on the usefulness of the innovation, adding backbone to your campaign to get your innovation agenda top of the polls.