In a former life, I was the Chief Ventures Officer at a US Government agency. My role and office were envisioned by an executive leadership team who understood that our discipline was being disrupted, and recognized that “what got us here won’t get us there.” They understood that new approaches in developing or procuring the capabilities needed to stay relevant were imperative. With this strategic perspective, leadership embarked on several new initiatives, all designed to shake our agency out of our comfort zone. As these matured over time, some “stuck,” some didn’t. That was the point: try new things—some would work, some wouldn’t. But we always wanted to be evolving to maintain relevance.
No surprise—we found innovation inside a large organization is REALLY hard. The “system” you are trying to disrupt exists for generally good and valid reasons. That system also prefers inertia. And when it comes to the perfect alchemy of having the team, time, resources, authority, and top cover needed to innovate, the latter is the most critical and rare commodity for innovation. I don’t mean top cover from a leader who bestows plentiful personnel and financial resources and gives innovators the time and space to work in a vacuum. In fact, I firmly believe scarcity helps avoid big, costly mistakes. It also isn’t carte blanche to bend or break all the existing rules. Nothing creates organizational resistance to innovation more than the well-funded A-team who’ve been disconnected from the mainstream and unfettered by the practical realities of business rolling in with The Solution To All Our Problems.
Top cover in this sense derives from leaders relentless in their desire to improve the organization’s products or services, specifically nurturing innovation imperatives. Leaders who encourage questioning status quo and recognize that organizational pioneers need “extra.” Extra attention. Extra psychological safety. Probably extra protection from resource reallocations, pocket vetoes, or diversion through real or imagined policy barriers. Likely extra mentoring and patience. And most definitely extra recognition and appreciation—even when they fail. Most of the innovators I worked with in that CVO assignment did not need extrinsic rewards—they thrilled from trying and learning alone. But effective and visionary top leaders must celebrate their innovators’ accomplishments and practices because they grasp that meaningful innovation inside a large organization is REALLY hard. And it’s also the only way to stay organizationally relevant.
Christy Monaco formerly served as Chief Ventures Officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and is currently Vice President of Programs at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.