The (Internal) Customer is Always Right

Innovation always creates both winners and losers. Within organizations, this is acutely true. Good ideas will die early because those that will lose seek to kill them. Bad ideas will live too long because individual winners will overrun their opponents — even if the organization loses in the end. It’s the universally experienced, “We love the idea when the senior leader is in the room, and then when they leave, we hate it,” phenomenon.

Customer-obsessed innovation leaders rarely obsess enough about their internal customers. Innovation leaders need to be expert politicians. If they’re trying to get a promising initiative to market, they need to identify opponents and figure out how to win their support. If they’re trying to shut something down, they need to identify supporters and figure out how to change their minds.

Over the last several months, we’ve been running a range of pilots to explore how a new approach might help innovation leaders more effectively navigate these challenges. We share the profile of an initiative with internal stakeholders before presenting them with a number of assumptions that will have to prove true for the initiative to be successful. We then ask the stakeholders to quantify their confidence in each assumption proving true as a way to develop insight into market potential and organizational sentiment. Here are a few key findings:

  1. People rarely say what they truly believe. When you ask someone to share their general opinion on an initiative’s potential, they may tell you one thing. But when you ask them to quantify their confidence in specific aspects of the initiative’s potential — product-market fit or likely financial returns, for example — they often tell you another thing. When you know both your answers and your rationale for those answers will be recorded, it’s a lot harder to be wishy-washy.

  2. Pinning people down creates accountability. Systematically capturing such sentiment makes it much easier to understand the nature of organizational support for an initiative and to track that support over time. You can see how the results of your innovation test-and-learn activities are increasing or decreasing confidence in the initiative’s potential. You can go to specific people to understand why their support is changing, and if someone suddenly vetoes an idea they’ve supported, you can hold them accountable.

  3. Accountability increases engagement. When people know you’re going to share their levels of confidence in different aspects of an initiative’s potential, no one wants to be an outlier without good reason. Let’s say the analysis shows that most people are generally confident that an initiative will generate attractive financial returns. If a person registers no confidence whatsoever without a solid rationale, it might be immediately clear that they’ve not been paying attention. The result is that people “lean forward” a bit more because they want to make sure they have current information to back up their opinions.

Most innovation books and articles share thinking about how organizations can more successfully capitalize upon opportunities (and defend against threats) in the world beyond their walls. Some directly or tangentially address the organizational “antibodies” and “rigidities” that make it hard for organizations to do new and different things well. Few take enough time to consider carefully how the nature of individual alignment, accountability and engagement has outsized influence on who — and therefore, which initiative — wins or loses.