Why "top down" innovation is difficult
First, most senior executives aren't innovators themselves. Most senior executives grew through the organization and moved up by being effective stewards of the company's funds, resource and culture. Most of them were respectful of the history of the company and the brands. They progressed by doing things well, and doing things efficiently. Few senior executives in most organizations got to their posts by being demonstrably different. In fact we create celebrities of the CEOs like Jobs from Apple or Branson from Virgin who are really different CEOs, who shook up an industry or market. Since most senior executives weren't innovators and didn't obtain their jobs because of innovation, they don't really understand what's required when they say they want "innovation". If your CEO or senior executive team is asking for innovation from the organization and you believe they haven't defined what they really want, stop waiting for the definition. Like pornography they'll know it when they see it and not before, and will probably struggle giving you a definition. If you decide to respond, simply write down your objectives and how you think that aligns to corporate strategy and start innovating. Most likely your model will be adopted.
Second, since most executives are keepers of the culture, and in many cases creatures of the culture, they don't understand the amount of change necessary to move a company that's been focused on effectiveness, efficiency, cost cutting and minimizing errors or mistakes to a company that embraces innovation. The biggest barrier to innovation isn't "creativity" or generating ideas or the ability to spot new opportunities. The biggest barrier to innovation is cultural inertia and fear. After years of very clear communication about effectiveness, lean, cost cutting and so forth, it requires a lot of trust and change to shift to an innovation posture, and cultures like battleships turn slowly. Since most executives don't have long tenures, cultural change sounds like a Bataan death march, and those requirements are ignored, misunderstood or swept under the rug. Even executives who understand the need for cultural change in support of innovation blanch at the work involved. If you decide to start innovating in your product group or business unit, don't wait for the organizational cultural change. You know what needs to happen, so create your own "local" cultural in your product line or business unit that embraces innovation. You'll give yourself enough rope to succeed, or to hang yourself. Either way it's a decision.
Third, most executives are driven by the quarterly drumbeat of the market, and therefore many don't have patience to examine and understand longer term goals and strategy. Innovation, especially the disruptive innovation that everyone wants, is by its very nature a longer term effort. So, while organizations talk about "white space" and executives demand "disruptive breakthroughs" many of them don't have the stomach for the longer term effort and don't understand the investment involved. Trend spotting and scenario planning isn't hard, it just requires a commitment to doing the work and understanding what the future may hold. Most firms don't do this well, if at all. Strange to think that the one place we are all heading is the one place most firms don't do a good job of understanding. For most executives the future, especially anything more than 5 years out, is simply unknowable and perhaps beyond their expected tenure, so why try? If you want to innovate, you've got to piece together views of the future beyond the annual plan. Most organizations have a product development cycle greater than 18 months, so a three to four year look into the future on a regular basis should be automatic, but it's not.
Fourth, some innovation programs assume that executives should be the ones to generate the ideas, and the middle managers, product managers and so forth are the ones who should figure out how the ideas get implemented as new products. With a few exceptions, I can't think of a worse way to run an innovation program. Most senior executives are rarely in touch with the lives of their actual customers, and have little understanding about the challenges the customers are trying to solve or the new opportunities they have in their lives. Most executives sit in meeting after meeting with other executives and never actually meet their customers or understand their lives. Like the GM executives who only drove GM cars and never purchased their own gas, many executives are isolated from their customers and their customers' needs. If you want to innovate, listen to the strategies being defined by the executive team and then go out and find out what customers really want and need, and align your ideas if possible to both requirements, giving more weight to the customers' needs. The ultimate fulfillment of the Peter Principle is that the higher you climb in executive management, the further removed you are from what an average customer really wants. This makes dictating the kinds of innovation necessary very difficult and results in vague requests for innovation.
Finally, many organizations are so large that it is difficult to have a crisp statement of strategy or strategic intent. Without clearly defined corporate goals and strategies, it becomes hard for innovators to decide which problems are more important and which ideas are valid. In the absence of clear strategic and strategic direction, all ideas seem relevant. In a large firm, innovation is all about resource allocation - picking the "best" ideas among a number of competing ideas. Your executive team needs help here as well. They want organic growth, differentiation or disruption, or some combination of those three things. They need to know that innovation is a tool in service of these corporate goals, not a strategy in and of itself. If you can help them identify and clarify the goals for the firm, then you can apply innovation as a tool to rapidly improve any of those three factors. Strategic clarity is usually lacking, but executives don't understand why that is so important to innovators.
If you are still reading at this point, you may think that "bottom up" innovation is the only way to succeed, and for many firms I think that's probably right. Having people who understand the need of the customer means being close to the customer or prospect, which is less likely to happen at senior levels. It means more flexibility and risk taking, and having a longer term point of view, both less likely to happen at senior levels. If these things are true, what can executives do to spawn innovation?
They can impact the culture through rewards and recognition. They can understand their value in creating clear strategic goals and communicating those effectively. They can introduce tools, techniques and methodologies to help the innovators accomplish their goals. They can introduce a common language and approach for innovation as tools for innovators to use. They can encourage networking and interaction with other firms which will spawn many more new ideas. They can introduce new tools to gain customer insight. They can create new funding mechanisms beyond an annual plan. In essence, they can become the cheerleaders, funders and toolbringers, which is really all they can do effectively.