A number of people have written to me, almost all through private emails, to indicate that they have a “clout” problem, and wondering what I thought they should do about it. Since it is a great subject for a post, I decided I’d share here, summarising what I’ve said to many via email.
The first thing about “clout” – especially the kind needed for innovators – is that you either have it by virtue of your position (i.e. you are senior in your own right), or you have it because you are associated with someone who has clout.
This is, by the way, why so many studies suggest that successful innovators almost always have the ear of the CEO, or someone directly reporting to him or her.
Let us assume, therefore, that you don’t have clout because you aren’t senior yourself. And whilst innovation is important, noone at the top really cares enough to prioritise it over other things. This means the question really boils down to one thing: how can you prove to someone with clout that you should be closely associated with him or her?
I cover this in detail in Futureproofing, in which I outline a five step model that innovators have to go through before they’re going to be able to do much that is really impactful.
Firstly, innovators have to prove they can do anything. It doesn’t matter what, even the smallest of deliverables that can be talked about make a difference. Avoid the temptation to take on big programmes! Without clout, they will go nowhere. Instead, take on a few, small, but talk-about-able things. Make them work, and you can move to the next stage.
The second stage for innovators is building a network of interested people that care about doing things differently. Taking the small things that were achieved previously, talk to everyone, anyone that will listen, in fact, about how innovation can make a difference. Find the people that will help in the mission to do things differently. Offer them opportunities to participate. Recognise that one person – even a small number of people – is never going to scale. You need to recruit believers.
Why doesn’t an innovation programme scale when you just add employees? The answer is simple. The cost of an innovation programme has to be less than the returns it generates. When you add people, your costs increase. On the other hand, most things that are genuinely new never give you any decent returns in the same year as you’re paying your wage bill. By the time they are giving you decent returns, someone else in the business will be taking the credit. Trust me on this: you need to keep your innovation team costs as low as possible. Recruiting believers is the only way to get avoid this trap.
The third stage, once you have all these people helping with the innovation problem is making sure that you can get predictable. You need to make sure you can make a return routinely on the money your enterprise gives you for investment. It needs to be predictable, so that senior people can trust that if they make a bet on you they won’t look stupid. And, of course, if you’re generating real returns, they’ll be interested in holding you close, simply because you’re something that has the potential to make them look good.
Guess what, you’ve just managed to get some clout.
The next stage is using the tools of innovation to start influencing strategy by helping senior leaders rehearse important future decisions. You’d be amazed at how powerful that can be, especially when they find they’re ready to deal with something unexpected in advance. Do that often enough, and you’ll be invited into top table discussions to help future planning.
The final stage is one where you have enough clout that in your own right you can disrupt major business lines and get away with it. Bare in mind that this is the ultimate point of being an innovator in the first place: the job is saving organisations from themselves. Any operation will be disrupted by someone given enough time: the real role of innovators, therefore, is to ensure that such disruptions come firmly from within, where they can be controlled and managed.
Of course, it is this kind of disruption that causes the worst innovation backlash in the first place. That’s why clout is important.
Now, on average, you have only 18 months to get from the first stage to third before you will either get cancelled, or you will be personally tarnished as not effective. I hate to say this, but if you’re in role for longer and you still haven’t got the clout you need, you’ll probably not be able to turn things around. You’ll need to consider carefully your options.
There are some, but I won’t go into them here. The point is, there is an urgency about doing all this stuff which many people don’t recognise. You are in a constant race to prove the value of what you do against the value of everything that the organisation ordinarily does. Since business as usual has an overwhelming advantage most of the time, it is a race that very few people win without help.
Now, one last piece of advice if you don’t have clout: get a meeting with the most senior person you can. When you have the meeting, indicate you can’t be effective because you have no clout. Offer to shut down innovation altogether, since “our organisation is clearly not ready for it”. Since no-one senior will ever allow themselves to be seen as “not innovative” this is practically certain to at least give you a chance to do something.
In the meantime, if you’re still trying to get those first few things happening, and you can’t, I’d suggest you try something smaller, commensurate with the amount of clout you have right now. I promise you, clout will build over time and comes automatically with success.