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Are Innovation Managers Becoming Obsolete?

Are Innovation Managers Becoming Obsolete?

By Dave Hengartner, Co-Founder/CEO of rready, a SaaS startup supporting companies to unleash their biggest asset for innovation: employees.

During the first few months of 2024, several Swiss and international companies have laid off their centralized innovation teams. This is sad news for everyone affected and I feel sorry for them – not only for the fact that these individuals will need to look for a new professional opportunity, but also for the passion they’ve put into their projects during the last years which are now suddenly coming to a halt. And while this is not a surprise, given the current economic landscape, a closer examination of the rationale behind this decision reveals an intriguing perspective. 

According to the leadership of these companies, the move doesn’t come because of cost cutting or to undermine the innovation efforts within the company. Interestingly, it’s the exact opposite: they believe that innovation is a function that should not be the task of a single team. The main objective is to make innovation a part of everyone’s job, regardless of roles, positions, backgrounds, and to cultivate cross-team collaboration, creativity, and ideation. 

While many have reacted in surprise to this move, at rready, we have been advocating for years to decentralize innovation and make it accessible to all employees. This has not been an easy journey, since the broader market has stuck to traditional approaches centered around “innovation hubs” tasked solely with discovering ‘the next big thing’.  

Over the recent years, the outcomes have been documented: Projects were initiated, halted, and some successful ones were identified as ‘too distant’ from the core business resulting in the creation of corporate ventures. These ventures are either too small to move the needle of the mothership or too divergent from the core business to significantly leverage mutual assets. 

It is time to get rid of the traditional and costly centralized model of a large innovation lab. I see more and more companies embracing decentralized programs to tap into the brainpower of every employee in the organization. Decentralized in this case, refers to the programs being available to everyone, having a clear strategic focus, and being aligned with the overarching company goals. 

Results speak for themselves, and success stories are widespread among companies across different industries, continents, and innovation maturity levels. Some of these organizations have saved millions in cost savings or created significant new revenue streams, while breaking-up traditional siloed structures along the way.  

This is achieved by unleashing the collective wisdom of thousands of employees, paired with clear accountability, and alignment with the top-down defined strategic goals.  

The burning question is: what happens to all the innovation teams when innovation becomes a shared responsibility? Do we let all these people go with a mere thank you gift and a card saying, ‘we wish you well’? The good news is their roles won’t vanish. But they will evolve, much like many other professions in today's fast-changing world. Instead of trying to uncover the “next big thing” themselves, these innovation teams will provide tools, methods and support to enable others to do so. They will make innovation accessible for everyone, simplified, and measurable – thereby entering into the era of decentralized innovation. 

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