How to Deliver Better Return on Innovation Through Improved Communication With Stakeholders
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How to Deliver Better Return on Innovation Through Improved Communication With Stakeholders

July 27, 2021 | Report

Executive Summary

As companies plan for the postpandemic future, many are looking to innovation as a prime growth strategy. It is also a prime challenge, as the past has shown that innovation outcomes often fall short of aspirations. While companies lean heavily on time-tested practices like strong support from the C-suite and tolerating (and learning from) failure, they often ignore a practice that’s so ubiquitous it is often overlooked: communication. It is not enough to come up with a new product or service: the company must also drive adoption of the new product or service through effective communication—finding the right words to influence the right audience at the right time.

While communication is not the leading harbinger of success, many would-be innovators underuse it, hampering their progress. Our recent series of interviews with successful innovators reveals that strategic, skillful, and disciplined communication—that is, exchanging information with others, either person to person or through channels such as videos and internal and external talks—is front and center for them.

“When I took the job, I thought the most important thing was doing great work. I realized within the first year that communication was most important. Why is this important? It helps in managing four key stakeholder groups: talent, customers, external partners, and the media world.” - Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at a large US software company

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of good communication practices. Several innovation executives we spoke with note that their team and the C-suite communicate with each other more often and for longer periods than they did prepandemic. This is particularly true in companies whose process or product innovations directly address the challenges of the pandemic. Innovation leaders and their teams also communicate more and better, not only to convey changing circumstances and plans, but also to listen to employees’ concerns and support them during a difficult time. Companies now respond more often to emerging customer issues and demands, too.

Interestingly, not only do most companies ignore communication as an innovation success factor, but many researchers on the topic of innovation do so as well: they sometimes characterize it as a “bit player,” if they mention it at all. This paper brings the importance of hearing and transmitting ideas and information to the fore, outlining diverse ways several leading innovators use communication techniques to advance their goals.

Insights for What’s Ahead

Communication is a core innovation activity that is becoming increasingly important. As projects become more ambitious and complex, constituencies more demanding and diverse, markets more competitive, and the external environment becomes even more dynamic and challenging, able communicators will distinguish themselves.

Innovation leaders need to take responsibility for orchestrating effective communication as an essential part of their work. While communicating is a team sport that requires back-and-forth exchanges with multiple individuals and audiences, the chief innovation leader must ultimately be responsible for planning, orchestrating, and “owning” it.

Communication needs to be two-way and specific enough to resonate with each audience—employees, shareholders, customers, investors, and analysts. The messages need to be coordinated so they don’t contradict one another. Effective two-way communication with audiences throughout the innovation process—from idea inception through launch—increases the odds that an innovation will succeed. Listening skills are especially important, as are being able to detect problems early, address them with empathy, and change course when needed.

Five communication techniques and seven communication skills help leaders overcome common innovation challenges and exploit opportunities. Executives we interviewed highlight the following:

Five communication techniques

  1. Tie innovation to company purpose.
  2. Shift management thinking toward the future to attract and enroll resources.
  3. Create a road map that holds the complex innovation activities together.
  4. Build belief in innovation’s potential, thus ensuring continuity for long-term disruptive projects.
  5. Establish and leverage a superior value proposition that drives customer adoption.

Seven communication skills

  1. Learning to listen first
  2. Speaking to hearts and minds: the power of storytelling
  3. Adopting rallying cries
  4. Articulating the problem you are trying to solve
  5. Translating technical language into layman’s language
  6. Sweating the details
  7. Using professional communicators

Communication needs to reach different audiences up, down, across, and outside the organization. It is comprehensive in scope and consistent internally and externally.


Innovation and Communication: Report and Tool Kits

The Conference Board interviewed 17 leaders—innovation executives, communications leaders, CEOs, and other C-suite executives—from 10 different companies based in the US and Europe. We also tapped printed and web-based materials, and we reached out to the Advisory Board of The Conference Board Innovation and Digital Transformation Institute and to Members of the four innovation-related Councils of The Conference Board. The companies we spoke with included lauded innovators in technology, retail, utilities, chemicals, insurance, software, and IT services. Here’s what they told us. (Please click on a title below.) 

How to Deliver Better Return on Innovation Through Improved Communication With Stakeholders (research report) Effective communication can resolve or ease some of innovation’s most difficult problems. This report discusses the impact of communication and guides innovation leaders and others in communicating internally and externally.

Tool Kit: Five Communication Strategies for Advancing Innovation The innovation leader needs to deliver effective, creative, and tailored communication to bring a concept to market or to establish an enterprise-wide innovation culture. This tool kit offers five communication techniques that leaders use to overcome common innovation challenges and exploit opportunities.

Tool Kit: Seven Skills for Communicating Innovation Successfully Most innovation leaders are trained as scientists, engineers, or business leaders and often have little formal training in effective communication. This tool kit offers seven skills that help innovation leaders and others communicate successfully about innovation.






Program Director, Market Insights Council; Co-Program Director, Innovation Leadership Council, and Applied Innovation Council
The Conference Board

Xiaohui (Janet)Hao, PhD

Former Senior Economist
The Conference Board


Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

John Metselaar

Economy, Strategy & Finance Center Leader, Europe
The Conference Board


Co-leader of the Innovation and Digital Transformation Institute, Program Director for the Product & Service Development Council, and Co- Program Director for the Innovation Leadership Council

Tool Kit: Five Communication Strategies for Advancing Innovation

Tool Kit: Seven Skills for Communicating Innovation Successfully


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