[Blog] How innovation still matters in uncertain times

Innovators add value in org's that focus on here & now via incremental steps to a long-term vision related to the same purpose as core operators.

[Blog] How innovation still matters in uncertain times
Innovation work may look different now, focusing on core topics first. But with foresight, it still helps you transform over time

I've had too many conversations lately with friends who struggle with the future of their organizations. It often boils down to:

"I get that we need to focus on the core business right now.
But shouldn't we at least invest some effort in the future?

We must still innovate some!

If not, we'll be left in the dust once the economy turns around
and others already have their future business in place."

The answer is "yes of course we still must innovate." It just has to take a new form.

We must put that innovation work in the service of very immediate objectives, so innovators add value to the core right now, long before some transformation can take hold.

Leaders can set their teams on a more solid path with two (fairly) simple shifts:

  • From diversity across topics to diversity within a topic
  • Go from single-shot transformation to incrementality

And this may even benefit innovation, as much as we might bemoan it right now.

Two shifts for times when "innovation" is out of favor

We can hack corporate innovation work to be more relevant in times of uncertainty and retrenchment– even without causing major upheaval for our teams–if we evolve how we think of our innovation portfolios and roadmaps.

🤹 ➡️ 🪢 From diversity across topics to diversity within a topic

By default, strong innovation programs create portfolios of very diverse ("orthogonal") hypotheses that might transform a business.

But today, operators will (even more than normal) see such as "distraction" and "lack of focus on the core."

Meanwhile, innovators roll their eyes at operators' pure focus on the business as it exists today, seeing that work as "moving deck chairs on the titanic."

A solution here is to focus on practical, must-solve problems on which operators can't devote attention right now, even though they see the problem's reality.

Often, such problems have been unsolved so far because they don't have a single, observable cause. They still take a systems approach to solve.

And so, innovators can still use their portfolio mindset and consider a range of directions. They just have to focus on issues that will get the business ready for next year, rather than for 10 years out.


  • Identify issues: In dialog with operators, identify the must-solve problems that operators face but can't solve.
  • Fit to team skills: Prioritize those that your team can legitimately tackle, likely those that appear to (1) require multi-component solutions and (2) need solutions to be created rather than simply chosen.
  • Create focused portfolio: Build a portfolio of projects that test out different solution component hypotheses.
  • Keep the objective in sight: Maintain a system-level view of the entire problem, to maintain focus on the major problem at hand and avoid getting stuck in rabbit holes.

🚀 ➡️ 🛰️ From single-shot transformation to roadmapped steps

By default, operators and innovators are all too happy to leave each other to their own, separate devices: One focuses on results today. The other focuses on results in the future.

But today, it's legitimately unclear what the future might even hold. And teams may feel like that future will be shaped by bigger forces than the org itself–be they AI, regionalization of the global economy, war, or any other number of issues that the org can neither fully predict nor control.

And so, investing in "transformational" innovation can legitimately appear like folly.

But of course, the future will come. At some point, the various uncertainties will reach their next temporary equilibrium. And by the time that happens, the org will need to be ready.

And so, innovators can still use their core toolkits to help to get the org ready for the future. They simply have to apply competencies like trends & foresights and tools like roadmapping closer in, over horizons and on topics that don't feel like pure speculation. Then bigger impact can come via thoughtful roadmaps.


  • Map near-in trends: Apply your foresight capabilities with a higher-resolution focus on near-in changes, rather than long-term trends.
  • Synthesize scenarios and triggers: Turn the infinite noise of change into a few distinct scenarios, complete with triggers that give you advance warning that one or the other scenario is about to come about. (This is the same as in any other trends & foresight work, just closer in. It should still feel challenging, given the degree of noise and uncertainty in many sectors.)
  • Develop roadmaps and playbooks: For each scenario, develop a view of what your org's business might look like, identify a potential way to succeed in that future, and create a draft roadmap for getting there, should the scenario come true. Be extremely practical in the implications that you describe coming out of that roadmap. For the first few steps, it should feel like a very practical "playbook" that you and your operator partners might implement the moment that signals indicate what scenario is starting to dominate the external landscape.

The surprising implication

Do I know the future? No. But I have a hunch. 😀

My take is that the current mess may help corporate innovation mature to a more sustainable state.

Just like many startups only existed in the past few years because of cheap access to capital ("zero-interest rate phenomenon (ZIRP)"), too much corporate innovation work was still stuck in "innovation theater" and "innovation orthodoxy."

The current need to change will be painful. But it will require everyone to sort out messes on which operators and innovators have stalled in the past.

More interaction. More empathy. Better collaboration

For one thing, operators and innovators will simply interact more.

It's messy, sure. But they can't avoid each other as readily as in the past. In functioning organizations, they will even find new ways to work with and respect each other.

Forced toolkit evolution

Clearly, corporate innovation has not reached proper maturity yet. Innovation teams would not be vulnerable to being dissolved in uncertain times if our value was self-evident.

So something still needs to change, no matter how much we assert the awesomeness of our toolkits.

Chances are that those new ways will develop in practice, not via some genius thinking amazing thoughts in the abstract. I obviously have my own opinion on what is missing from "standard" innovation tools. Thus this whole site. But there will be more, possibly way more, that's also needed. It's in these times where we just can't rely on same-old-same-old that this will shake itself out.

Overall then, we may end up with a more grown-up version of corporate innovation, coming out of it.

More sober and less excitable? Maybe. But more credible? Maybe that too!