Why a Career in Innovation Management is a Bad Idea. And What Can You do About it.

Following a career in innovation might sound really exciting. At least in theory, you will have to tap into your creative self, you will get the chance to play with the latest technology, understand the latest trends and overall have a feeling of being ahead of the curve. But in reality, in most companies, following a career in innovation might be the worst choice one can make.

Following a career in innovation might sound really exciting. At least in theory, you will have to tap into your creative self, you will get the chance to play with the latest technology, understand the latest trends and overall have a feeling of being ahead of the curve. 

But in reality, in most companies, following a career in innovation might be the worst choice one can make.

According to a LinkedIN research that looked at 12,000+ CEOs of companies worldwide with a headcount of at least 50 employees, innovation is not listed in the top 10 most common first job functions (a close ‘relative’ of innovation, entrepreneurship is listed only on the 8th position). 

So why is it that careers in innovation don’t lead to senior leadership positions later on and what can you do about it if you are still set to follow a career in innovation management. 

Hypothesis 1: great innovators seldomly get promoted

Companies that rely on individual talents for their innovation strategy to succeed and don’t yet have an embedded innovation governance system that can help even the least talented innovator innovate, will never promote to leadership positions successful innovators. 

As counterintuitive this might sound, it actually makes sense. 

Companies will always want to have successful innovators work on innovation. They have a track record showing that they can take an idea and make it into a successful business proposition. If these people are moved to less hands-on positions, they will no longer have a direct contribution to the success of a new idea. 

As the old saying goes ‘never change a winning team’, it’s better to keep successful intrapreneurs where they are today. 

Hypothesis 2: failure sticks like glue

Although companies usually say they are rewarding risk taking and failure, in most cases failures will follow one’s career for as long as they work in that company (and sometimes even beyond). In such corporate cultures, a failure will never be overlooked. And those employees that failed once will never get a chance to redeem themselves on other projects.

Unfortunately failure is a part of the innovation process – as data has it about 80% of startups fail. Meaning that your chance of succeeding with an entrepreneurial project within a large organization are less than 2 in 10. 

Therefore in companies with a risk intolerant culture where failure stinks and that stench is not easily removable from one’s CV, the prospects of a promotion after a failure are tiny. 

Hypothesis 3: you aren’t working on innovation you are working in innovation theater 

Still many companies today are engaged more in innovation theater than in real innovation. This means that they don’t take innovation seriously and don’t view it as a viable growth engine. Consequently the people working in that innovation department aren’t taken seriously either,minimizing the chances for a top leadership promotion directly from the innovation theater department.

So what are your options if you still want to pursue a career in innovation management? 

Aside from the obvious option of not following a career in innovation if you hope for a top management position later on in life you have other three options:

Option 1: look for companies that have a track record of rewarding risk taking, failure and in general innovation. 

There are many companies that pride themselves for supporting innovation management and in general an entrepreneurial culture. Try looking for those when you apply for a job. 

Option 2: look for companies that invest in building innovation systems and are not dependent on heroes and heroics to see results.

The moment a company depends entirely on individual contributors for the success of its innovation efforts it exposes itself to the risk of those individuals leaving the company. 

Without trying to minimize the impact an individual might have on the positive outcome of an innovation venture, ultimately companies need to invest in building innovation systems that are less dependent on individual contributions and more reliant on collaboration and network effects. 

Option 3: look for companies that constantly invest in developing their employees’ innovation abilities. 

Companies that view their employees as assets, rather than liabilities, and treat them accordingly also tend to invest in employees’ development. 

Making it to top management coming from innovation is still uncommon in most organizations. But with more and more companies facing an imperative need for real innovation-led growth things might change in the future. 

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