The innovation team is dead; long live the innovation team

We’re due for a changing of the guard. The innovation revolution is petering out, the innovation teams in their cool labs have been waiting for the trend siege to be over. They’re running out of supplies, their fortress walls have taken a battering, and frankly, they can’t hold out much longer in their current form.

Or at least that’s my observation after emerging from my dungeon after a few weeks working closely with some innovation teams. The dungeon is no joke, we were relegated to a basement with no windows. True story.

Innovation teams, back in the day, were novel. They strong-armed a cultural change in an industry that is known for being a bastion of conservativeness and risk mitigation. They were the guerrilla fighters in a sea of rank and file soldiers. They were armed with the latest and greatest tech weaponry, like laser guided bombs going up against saber rattling pre-industrial squadrons. They had their own barracks. The Innovation Lab was off campus, sleek and swank with glass walls covered in sticky notes, bean bags and ping pong tables, and probably the best coffee in the all the bank.

They had their own training program and field tests. They got to play with the new toys, those fintechs that were flowering up post 2008. They could play, and test, and experiment, and they were given endless day passes to leave the base to go play with those new toys.

But this isolation, keeping innovation untainted from the constraints of business as usual, is what has put them under siege now. And it’s time it stopped. They deserve better. And so do the P&Ls who provide the aggregated innovation budget. We all deserve better.

My time in the dungeon taught me something. A little context here: that dungeon time was spent designing POCs between banks and fintechs. And what I observed had more to do with accountability than it did with ability to design pilots.

Accountability is the single factor that determines whether or not something, anything, gets done.

Not responsibility. Accountability.

The people in the room tackling real business use cases, immediate problems, and longer term strategic initiatives are actually what makes or breaks the success of a POC. The tech matters, I won’t dismiss that. It really does matter. But the tech itself is neutral, what pushes it into being the right (or wrong) solution is how the people deploying and designing the tech deploy it. It comes back to people each and every time.

And those people need to be accountable.

Accountable for what, actually? The business.

So who are these people? The General, who owns the P&L, who is accountable for the revenue stream and the profitability of the product or line of business. The Colonel, who oversees the day-to-day running of that product and owns the strategy for go-to-market anddelivering it. The Majors who know the architecture landscape and customer journey, and where all the pitfalls are when a workflow breaks, and the chain of command is broken. The Captains who run the tactical execution of the strategy, those who manage the trench work that other Lieutenants are accountable for, and so on.

I’m partial to the military metaphor here. In the battlefield, adjustments to strategy have to be made, and each member of the corps has a single mission in mind. They have a role to play, and they are accountable for making decisions at a tactical level to ensure they deliver. And in each line of business daily battle for customers, market, and profitability, each member of the team needs to be accountable for their role, so they actually need to be empowered to make decisions and take ownership.

That accountability doesn’t reside with a separate innovation team.

An innovation team, separate from the line of business, is basically relegated to a scouting party. They are reconnaissance teams, reporting back to base camp. They inform on the art of what is possible, but because of their isolation from the line of business, they are not empowered to truly explore that possible artistry nor are they accountable for delivering the innovative changes that art can have on the product, service, or even bottom line.

That isolation defeats the purpose of having an innovation team.

Instead, we should be thinking “Embedding”.

Business lines should have their own execution teams, their own “innovation” teams.

Innovation should never sit outside the business lines as a separate division. Innovation teams should be embedded.


When they know the intricacies of the challenges the business model faces, along with the functional workflows, the numbers on customer attrition/conversion, the compliance challenges and mandates – the in the trenches stuff – they have a different lens through which they can filter and analyse all the new tech and business models they scout. It means they can better map market innovations to the line of business challenges. It gives more nuance and insight when their innovation landscape is draped over the strategy plan. And it also means that the dreaded Innovation Lab project queue loses its bottleneck jam.

Embedding also means that the innovation team becomes accountable for its impact on that line of business. No longer is it just a responsibility to report back and run small experiments. It transforms into an accountability to deliver code, to move innovation into production, to positively impact the bottom line. Intimate familiarity with a line of business, and metrics measured against the line of business ROI, breed accountability.

Accountability is the single factor that determines whether or not something, anything, gets done. That accountability doesn’t reside with a separate innovation team. It’s time to embed innovation teams where they are most powerful – and most accountable. It’s time for LOBs and Innovation to share the same barracks.

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