How FDs and CFOs can unlock innovation

Ken Gabriel, former acting director of the US military's research unit DARPA, argues that finance is essential for enabling breakthroughs.

by Ken Gabriel
Last Updated: 15 Aug 2019

A company’s success — or indeed its very survival — increasingly depends on its ability to drive change and innovate at pace. Yet most organisations aren’t equipped to do this. At one extreme, they micro-manage innovation with rigid processes and metrics. At the other extreme, companies treat innovation as an art, operating with the philosophy that creativity shouldn’t be constrained at all.

Both approaches ultimately yield the same result: diminished or non-existent returns on R&D – an intolerable result for any finance director. But CFOs and FDs have among the most powerful roles in breaking this cycle of no return by applying and advocating for an approach I call disciplined innovation.

Disciplined innovation increases the likelihood for achieving breakthroughs because it creates the right conditions for innovation to flourish. It has three key components, starting with a determination to achieve a bold new capability — think engineering the lightbulb instead of designing a better candle. Many innovations are a 2.0, and while there’s a time and place for incremental innovations, new breakthrough capabilities are today’s game-changers.

Second, innovation requires fixed timeframes and budgets. Smart financial constraints and deadlines don’t impede creativity, they impel creativity by creating a sense of urgency and focus.

The third element is where the CFO plays a vital role: operating with independence. This means creating measured freedom from business-as-usual rules, especially when it comes to reporting, hiring and contracting. This is key to making breakthroughs happen.

Before I sound too sacrilegious, I’m not saying all rules need to be relaxed. Standard operating procedures like procurement have well-intentioned safeguards against risk. But when you consider all the elements that must align to bring a new invention to life – from talent to market opportunity to capital – it’s imperative for businesses to move fast and be able to strike at the right time. Waiting several months for a competitive bidding process to award a contract just isn’t an option.

CFOs have an immense lever to empower and encourage innovation by understanding what rules to relax and how to relax them. Some of the best finance directors I’ve worked with have taken some of the following key steps that paved the way for big breakthroughs.  And in the process went from people who said ‘no’, to saying ‘this is what we can do’.

Streamline financial control and reporting

Innovation isn’t a linear process and new discoveries often mean that money allocated for one workstream needs to shift to another. I’ve seen so much time wasted in multiple meetings justifying this shift to multiple stakeholders.

As long as the project stays within scope, additional reporting or controls on expenditures detracts from the mission at hand. Relaxing some of those reporting constraints is a relatively simple step a finance director can take that can empower an organisation to be far more agile while still guarding against risk.

Take a new approach to talent

Convention has us think about hiring people for the long-term. But innovators often want to come in to effect change on an exciting project and move on, either to another organisation or another project.

So instead of thinking about a long-term salary and benefits, finance and HR can work together to attract top technical talent with a sign-on bonus and incentivise them via a performance or exit bonus when they achieve the project’s goal.

It’s also critical to be open to subcontracting to be able to move at pace. Waiting several weeks for a search to hire a specific expertise in-house can kill innovation when a subcontractor can get a job done within a week.

Take a fresh look at contracts

Acting at speed requires a greater degree of outside partnering, bounded by shorter, simpler and mutually fair contracts that can be executed quickly.

For example, at Draper, lengthier contracts needed for defence work just aren’t practical for private-sector projects. So we created a shorter development services agreement, which has a more flexible approach to IP ownership and indemnification while still protecting against risk.

This is vital because if a project has a two-year deadline, waiting nine months to lock in a contract is going to doom the project to failure.

Incubate and insulate

Freedom from business-as-usual rules sometimes requires creating specific innovation activities within a company. One way we do this at Draper is through our Internal Research and Development program, which is where teams compete to get funding for game-changing innovation projects.

Each project lasts for a discrete timeframe and has a fixed budget, operates with independence and then the finance team and I check in with the group every six months to review progress and offer guidance.

The most important thing leaders can do is give people the right resources and remove the obstacles that allow them to innovate. That’s how I see my role as CEO today and how I partner with my finance team to make breakthroughs happen.

As you assess business-as-usual rules within your organisation, perhaps one guiding question can help: is this a governance issue, or simply the way we’ve always done things? If it’s the latter, you’re likely looking at an area you can unlock to increase the pace of innovation for your business and further differentiate your products, services and company.

Ken Gabriel is CEO of Draper, the MIT spin-off engineering company that developed the Apollo guidance computer. He is a former acting director of the US military's research arm, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and is regarded as the ‘godfather’ of MEMs, miniaturised and integrated mechanical and electrical technology, which among other things allows phones to orient themselves and car air bags to know when to fire.

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels


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