What does “top-level buy-in” mean in corporate innovation?

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It’s not a coincidence that I chose this topic as my first blog post in a series on corporate innovation.

Attaining top-level buy-in for your innovative idea or innovation program is crucial (unless you can go stealth mode, but that’s another topic).

Without the support of the people sitting on the board, you will struggle to find budget, time and resources to do pretty much anything substantial. Not to mention doing disruptive innovation often requires you to go out of bounds of typical large organizations’ governance policies.

You can start working on concepts, but when you move beyond that you are going to need support from upper levels.

‘Top-level buy-ins are absolutely essential for any kind of corporate innovation program. It needs to be isolated from the politics and detached from middle management. Else, just call it a PR exercise or “digital/cultural transformation”.’ , Director of Investments at æternity blockchain, former Investment Manager at Hub:Raum.

First of all: what isn’t top-level buy-in?

I hear many innovation managers and heads of innovation programs saying they had an easy time getting top-level support for their agenda. I can say for almost certain if you had an easy time getting it, then you don’t really have it!

99 out of 100 large organizations are built around
1) safety
2) bureaucracy
3) redundancy.

Let’s translate that into simpler terms:
1) fear
2) fear
3) fear.

This is understandable: most of these companies were built during the time when we still believed the more hours people worked in the office the more output they achieved. So naturally (is this the best term here?) people were cheating.

They were acting like they were working while Solitaire was a ubiquitous sight on corporate monitors, and they took home office supplies to compensate for the overly demanding work. This was also the time 100% of C-levels still believed they needed to be the smartest of everyone below them in ranks.

Therefore these safety precautions and bureaucratic systems needed to be installed to keep checks on subordinates and to cover up the fact that the CEO was not the smartest person in the whole company.

Circling back to the topic: if you had an easy time getting support in a company that “grew up” in these times (from C-levels who pretty much climbed the ladder during this period) it’s likely that one of two situations occurred:
1) they don’t understand what support you need
2) you didn’t ask for enough support to run an innovation program efficiently.

In these cases, you have approval but not buy-in.

Ok, great, so what do you mean by buy-in?

You have buy-in when you can execute a corporate innovation strategy or pursue a fundamentally new idea with autonomy, and the company is capable of making use of the results you generate. What do you typically need to be able to do this?

  • Budget (duh!)
  • Freedom to spend the budget (more or less) the way you feel it best suits your strategy without needing to get approval every step of the way. This is usually a tough nut to crack!
  • Ability to make adjustments to the strategy without needing to run around for approval.
  • Either assistance or exemption from most bureaucratic systems. (I once went on a venture scouting trip and then spent net 24 hours filing my expense reports. That’s three full working days!)
  • Time and commitment from the CEO, board and line managers to help the project’s smooth operation.
  • Systems for the specific reason of absorbing innovation within the organization. In fact: many innovation projects die because the organization doesn’t have said systems in place, not because the innovation team isn’t capable of building the product or service.
  • You should be able to use the productivity tools that let you work most efficiently (task management, calendar management, file management, chat, emails, etc.). This often requires waivers from policies — again, not an easy step for most organizations.

So they give you the money and the support, and you and your team have to execute something totally new. Does this sound similar to another type of partnership?

Actually, good relationships between large organizations and their innovation units are like VCs and startups. Good venture capital firms don’t overburden startups with approvals, reporting, and bureaucracy, because they only invest in startups they trust.

And where there’s trust is no fear.

(Dear CEO, if someone screws you over, you don’t need more safety nets, you need to hire better people! Invest in that, instead of new systems of distrust and you will find it is way more rewarding.)

As a conclusion, don’t mix up approval with buy-in. Make sure you have the right support, strategy, resources, and systems in place to create great things!

Oh, and just to finish off with a positive vibe, here is a gif of a cat riding a unicorn.

Vowed to make corporate-startup partnerships work. #corporateInnovation #innovationLeadership #innovationStrategy #innovationCulture