Boards increasingly want to be innovators

November 27, 2017

By Linda A. Hill and George Davis at Harvard Business Review from the November-December 2017 issue

The challenge of leading innovation is bringing about a sea change in corporate governance. Boards, once the dependably cautious voices urging management to mitigate risk, are increasingly calling for breakthrough innovation in the scramble for competitive advantage. We see this shift playing out across industries—notably at such companies as Ford, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever, which are all struggling to address slowing sales in their core businesses.

Embracing innovation and its inherent risks requires that boards and senior management develop new ways of working together. As Mark Ganz, the CEO of Cambia Health Solutions—a company at the forefront of innovation in the health care space—told us, board meetings no longer consist of PowerPoint presentations by management followed by a few perfunctory questions from the board. “The model has changed,” he explained. “We now bring the board ideas that are not fully baked and say, ‘Help us with this.’” It took some time for the board to realize that management was asking not for the answer but for engagement, he said, but “once they got used to it, it dramatically improved the board–management partnership and the value board members bring to the work of the company.”

The desire to create new and different ways of working is not always accompanied by the ability to do so, however. Adopting new roles and norms feels uncomfortable—even unnatural—to most people. To help address this knowing-doing gap, we spoke with directors and CEOs from a range of industries about their boards’ capacity to support innovation and risk management. The results were sobering, though the tide seems to be turning. A few of the directors in our study were clearly laggards, even going so far as to argue that innovation was irrelevant in their very mature industries. A handful were trailblazers, like Mark Ganz. The majority were just beginning to work their way through the challenges of governing innovation, some more deliberately and successfully than others.

Through our research, we identified the common obstacles most boards face and gleaned insight into how boards can reshape their roles to effectively foster and support the kind of innovation that leads to substantial growth.

Why Boards Struggle with Innovation

Boards increasingly believe that to fulfill their obligation to ensure the long-term well-being of their companies, they have to support management in developing a compelling innovation strategy. And that means learning to embrace risk while continuing to mitigate and manage it as much as possible. In this inverted risk paradigm, boards are discovering that avoiding risk is the riskiest proposition of all. Paula Price, a director at Accenture, Dollar General, and Western Digital Corporation, told us that boards should aim to develop the organization’s “capacity to pivot” into uncharted territory with new products, services, business models, or ways of organizing or getting work done. Standing still or waiting to see how things turn out are not considered serious options in today’s often tumultuous environment. A member of one automobile company’s board confessed that they had discouraged management from making the leap to electric cars for years; now he feared that the company was playing catch-up.

Click here to continue reading.

View all News