[Blog] Researching Credible Innovation Governance

I'm on a journey to build a practical toolkit for better active innovation governance. Join in!

[Blog] Researching Credible Innovation Governance
The innovation governance themes and topics that I plan to research


Corporate innovation governance often suffers from major problems, just like the core craft of innovation teams does.

But differently from core teams' craft, we don't have a bevy of wanna-be best methods yet (à la Lean Startup, Human-Centered Design, et al).

So I wanna assemble such a toolkit. Maybe it won't be a "best" method. But it should at least be "pretty decent." Over time, I've found crumbs and pieces of great innovation governance work across the interwebs, academic research, and the real-life work of fantastic innovation leaders and stakeholders.

It really should be doable!

Call to action

Researching alone is lonely. Join in if you're up for nerding out on this topic!

  • Got other topics to include in my research, other than those included in my draft map above? Please LMK!
  • Got leads on great innovation governance practice? Please send them my way.
  • Got enthusiasm and encouragement for me to slog on? Send it!
  • Got ways to make my emerging tools better? Please share!

A start

I would never let teams that I coach jump into research without having at least somewhat of a decent plan. I ought to eat my own dogfood and create a similar plan for myself.

Here then is a super-high-level plan, based on foundational research that I have already done:

Do we even need "innovation-specific governance?"

I've seen a lot of bad innovation governance in more than a decade of innovation work across a dozen or more industries. It felt natural from real-world experience, over and over, that innovation governance doesn't work well today.

But I still needed to check myself from jumping down a rabbit hole based on limited personal experience. (Maybe the common factor of my bad with governance wasn't the governance but me?)

So the strategist insisted on being heard. It always forces me to ask whether an objective makes sense in the first place:

Do we REALLY need some unique kind of innovation governance? Why?

Here then is my take on why this matters, boiled down to a few, simple arguments that you should be able to prove right or wrong based on your own experience. I should not be wiggle out from gaps in my thinking, the same way that I might in a long slide deck or full blog post.

If these three statements are true, I claim that we need a unique form of governance for innovation work:

  1. WE DON'T KNOW: Standard governance approaches assume that we know what "good" looks like. In response to that, much of "governance" focuses on holding up known standards and holding teams accountable. But in innovation we don't know that. We don't know levels of risks. We don't know standards for good. We don't know the evolution of context conditions. Even the bosses don't know. So if we collectively act like they do, we will very rigorously apply standards that might be completely bunk. Instead, we need something that can handle the fact that nobody in our org knows the shape of a "right" answer. It's not that the team has to prove anything to the bosses. It's that the bosses AND team need to prove something to the universe.
  2. TOPICS AREN'T "DONE:" Standard governance approaches work in a largely linear way. Once a topic has been checked off, it stays that way. Innovation doesn't work that way. Not only do we cover topics in parallel, simply at increasing levels of certainty and resolution. But things also change here, fast. So topics on which we previously "decided" may need revisiting. So we need a governance approach that can handle the ambiguity and chaos inherent in innovation work, as opposed to the complexity that governance for more operational efforts tries to manage.
  3. RISK IS A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: Standard governance approaches work to minimize risk, especially via their financial evaluation of work. But in innovation, risk is a given. It cannot be eliminated, only managed, or maybe ridden like a bucking bronco: You're lucky if you don't fall off. So we need a governance approach that helps us to understand, interact with, and maybe even steer risk, rather than hoping futilely to eliminate it.

Never re-boil the ocean: What already exists

Ok, so standard governance approaches don't work in innovation. We need something special, I claim (so far).

The next step of course was to find something that others have already developed on the topic rather than creating something new.

It honestly surprised the daylights out of me when when I realized that there really truly is no great, complete toolkit for doing innovation governance well.

Not to say that there's NOTHING. There IS content. Some of it just isn't good. Other stuff is incomplete. Yet other stuff is meant for audiences or use cases that don't apply to the active, hands-on work of innovation teams and (S/E)VPs of Innovation.

Here's a summary of everything I DID find in my foundational research:

An infographic with 5 numbers, under the headline of "No practical answers on active innovation governance?"
A summary of existing innovation governance content I found and considered

Once I get around to it, I'll create a nice little bibliography with all this content, maybe even including my assessment of each source. But for now, let's maybe just call out the best of the bunch (IMHO).

I found one truly insightful book on innovation governance. It's written by Jean-Philippe Deschamps, Professor Emeritus at IMD and consultant Beebe Nelson.

innovation governance: How Top Management Organizes and Mobilizes for Innovation

by Jean-Philippe Deschamps and Beebe Nelson

Published 2014

Buy from publisher (Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand)

As its title implies, this book tackles innovation governance at the Board and CEO level. If that's what you need, look no further. The book offers a very practical and organized way of tackling the topic. It appears to have quite some impact. And it has found its imitators (or multipliers, to be more positive). A lot of content one finds online when searching for the term "innovation governance" turns out to be a restatement of Deschamps' and Nelson's work.

But back to us.

The problem with Deschamps' and Nelson's book is that it's one level removed from the day-to-day governance that "steering committees," "advisory groups," and the like do for individual projects or, at most, portfolios. So we still need something else.

How I'll organize my research to create usable outputs

If I claim that "usable output" is a core requirement for Credible innovation work, I should probably ensure that my own stuff is usable too, eh?

Here's how I attempted that for this innovation governance research (while trying not to boil the ocean):

A colorful framework of 6 "credible innovation governance" topics around a central circle, with topic annotations
My research map
  1. To avoid gaps, I created a (hopefully) MECE research map: I looked through all the existing governance content I referenced in my infographic above, clustered the topics that I mentioned, and synthesized them into a single framework. Not having found any other content (yet), I would sure HOPE that I covered everything. But that's not the same as KNOWING that I covered it all. So I sorted the research map into what is essentially a "2x3" framework. Note the words along the left and top of the framework. I hope that my framework approaches MECE-ness because I consider both stable and dynamic elements, and aspects that are present, future, and ongoing concerns. Nothing else seems left for now. Let's see if that holds true as I go along.
  2. To ensure that the output is actually useful in active governance work, I added the topics below each theme: As far as I have experienced in my work, all of these are priorities for innovation leaders day to day. There probably are other topics too here. This is definitely an editorial, curated list, nowhere near MECE. Let me know if I missed any particularly interesting topics.

By the way, if you'd like a bit more about how I define each of the themes, here's my current description of each of them, top to bottom and left to right:


Leaders’ mindset, values, trust, and purpose, from which all else flows


Your visions and strategies, focus, and integration with other governance


The people, funds, tech, processes, and capabilities that you bring to bear


Your understanding of trends, forces, and changes that influence your org’s future


Your work to learn, to de-risk volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and/ or ambiguity


Ways to track and ensure progress, from KPIs to stage gates to portfolio management

Or, if you prefer for them to be integrated into the visual framework:

A colorful framework of 6 "credible innovation governance" topics around a central circle, with descriptions
The research map, including theme descriptions

And that's how far I've gotten so far.

Now, on to the actual research and synthesis 😃!

Just a reminder: Help me out!

As mentioned above, it'd be awesome to have you be part of this:

  • Got other topics to include in my research, other than those included in my draft map above? Please LMK!
  • Got leads on great innovation governance practice? Please send them my way.
  • Got enthusiasm and encouragement for me to slog on? Send it!
  • Got ways to make my emerging tools better? Please share!


Further reading

Well THAT is what this is all about, no?
To come, people. Hold your horses! 😄