Who's running cover?

Let's face it, it's difficult to innovate from within corporate walls because the majority of the company is doing what it should be doing: cranking out existing products and services reliably, and efficiently, while reducing risk for stakeholders.  It needs to do this.  We need them to do this.  But they also need to innovate to remain competitive.  Why does innovation succeed in some corporate environments and not in others?


A few years ago I saw Jeanne Liedtka hit this issue right on the head.  She talked about the behaviors and tasks the ‘innovator’ and their team are performing.  After a fairly predictable discussion (risk taking, norm-questioning, etc), she then ask the group “What is this person’s manager doing while this is going on?”  Again there were many expected comments from the group and she said “They are RUNNING COVER!”  In my experience, this is the most important element that needs to be in place in an organization.  It’s true that it is important for leaders in an organization to commit money, people, and verbal authority to a team of people who are charged with ‘innovation’.  Yet that’s not what really makes the difference.  Innovators who succeed are the ones who’s bosses are willing to run cover for them.  These bosses may or may not even know specifically what the team is doing on a day to day basis.  But they are there to run interference when the corporate antibodies attack. And they always will attack, even (especially) when they are well indended.


Innovation in your company will only go as far as the person willing to run cover for the team(s) who are daring to do something different.  This job is more difficult than the job of the innovator, and their work is usually invisible, unrecognized, unsupported, and most often the missing role in corporate innovation programs.  If you want to find the reason why innovation programs may stall at your company, look no further than to find out who is running cover.  If you can’t find that person, it doesn’t matter how much money, time, or people you throw at actually doing the innovating.  It just won’t work.