Keeping Long-Term Innovation Projects on Track

In nowadays innovation hackathons, companies which can mobilize and capitalize faster are more likely to win. However, developing game changing technologies requires a long-term and complex innovation process that might extend from 5 to 20 years. Unlike short or medium-term innovation, these projects aim at leading technologies that cope with future trends in order to create sustainable long-term value rather than short-term earnings. Long-term innovation is focused on foreseeable, yet hard to measure transformations, such as AI or the shift to sustainable energy, that would slowly but radically transform industrial landscapes.

However, leading the future and building a massive advantage over competition is not as easy as it sounds and its chances of failure and costs are significantly higher than those of short-term projects. This leads us to question how to mitigate the hurdles of long-term innovation in order to keep it on track and harvest rewarding yield some years from now.

If you are an intrapreneur in a major firm and you are trying to promote a long-term innovation project, kicking off your project will be the first bottleneck. These types of ventures are about researching and investing heavily in emerging developments outside of the organization’s immediate line-of-sight which makes them out of the “imperative” list of priorities, especially for companies shaken by short-term challenges. Therefore, it will not be easy convincing the management and shareholders that their understanding of today may not be valid tomorrow or that a future trend is so promising to bet on.

Accordingly, winning buy-ins for your long-term innovation idea requires tackling the 3 major drivers:
(a) Setting a solid connection between the standing business vision and your proposal.
(b) Inspiring before convincing, as getting your co-workers passionate about the concept will make them more tolerant of the uncertainty of your assumptions.
(c) Develop a rigorous business plan backed with a good financial model which you shall review and brainstorm in small groups before knocking the board’s door.

Once your project is launched, your new challenge will be maintaining progress in the right magnitude and direction while adjusting strategies along the way in a lean manner. The following are five must-consider tips to help you in this process:

1) Set a Realistic and Concrete Road map
In order to steer efforts in the right direction and to avoid missteps, develop a detailed R&D plan for the upcoming year and a generic, yet measurable one, for the following years. This will not only keep your key stakeholders aligned and supportive, but it will put all operations in order. Refrain from over-optimistic objectives that will eventually crush your credibility and your team’s motivation because of mismatched expectations. Most importantly, keep your plan agile by updating it to the emerging reality since you are stepping in an almost unknown realm.

2) Focus on Relationships and Inspiration
Long-term innovation is, by default, energy draining, less rewarding and less measurable than short term projects. Thus, you shall continuously motivate your co-workers and look for an intrinsic cause that would fuel their inspiration, rather than doing the job, because in many cases they would need to go the extra mile and take personal risks. Team homogeneity and the collaborative spirit is essential to maintain the synergy and engagement. Moreover, investing in developing a strong core team and strategic external partnerships will inevitably enhance the project’s stakes.

3) Do not Work in a Silo
Many innovation projects are run in strict confidentiality in order to avoid leakage or loss of first-mover advantage. However, if this will drive you to work in isolation, your losses will exceed your gains as your best moves will happen outside your walls. You would need to follow up with breakthroughs and achievements relevant to your project and even engage in some open-innovation projects or crowd-sourcing. Joint R&D with academic groups, non-profits, startups, or even competition will multiply your pace, reveal your blind spots and update your assumptions.

4) Avoid Costly kick-offs
Long-term innovation is often the most vulnerable to budget cuts and halts when a crisis is down the road or when a new management is in charge. Hence, it is crucial to decrease the likelihood of ceasing your project out of putting down burdens. It is highly recommended to split your project into escalating phases. Your first encounter shall be resource-friendly, yet highly demonstrative. Once some outcome is achieved, a larger budget should be requested for an advanced phase and so forth.

5) Let go of the Conventional Patterns
You will neither be able to build a future solution out of yesterday’s assumptions nor discover new paths by asking the questions which you are ready to answer. Time and energy have to be dedicated to finding the unexpected. This will require moving teams out of their comfort zones into unforeseen spaces and conversations, as well as, challenging the common sense and traditional constraints which define how things are being done today not tomorrow.


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