Corporate innovation is all the rage. The world’s largest companies are partnering with startups and opening innovation labs in tech accelerators. Everyone wants to capture that magic pixie dust that enables startups to be innovative and nimble, but obviously it’s hard to mimic that in large companies with all their pesky rules around governance and, you know, profitability.
Injecting innovation into large, complex organizations requires strategy and a willingness to learn what works and what doesn’t. It also requires a do-first mentality.
Deriving business value from an enterprise innovation lab isn’t as simple as finding an open office next to the latest celebrity startup and unleashing the brains of the company’s most creative minds. A successful corporate innovation practice requires commitment to planning and follow-through on execution.
I’ve drawn from my experience coaching companies launching a collaborative innovation strategy and scripted the first 10 steps organizations should be ready to make at the start of the corporate innovation game.
Running through these initial steps will provide innovation chiefs with the information and insight to build a strategy and lead their lab to becoming a valuable business contributor and development leader.
1. Hire a lab director from the outside. Labs that last are able to execute, and the first thing you need is an activator to provide the driving force necessary to move ideas to realities. Unless you want your lab to fall back into the product update repeat cycle or become a storage locker of ideas that never leave the building, this will almost always need to be someone brought in from outside the organization.
2. Hire a team that is different. How does a large, 100-year-old organization compete to hire people that may rather work for a startup? Learn how startups recruit the best and the brightest, and then highlight what startups can’t offer: a chance to influence a multibillion-dollar company, bonuses and competitive salaries, and an opportunity to move within the organization to further the innovation strategy. Leverage what you have and learn what you don’t know.
3. Conduct an innovation readiness assessment. Measurement is one of the key tenets of a successful innovation strategy. By conducting an Innovation Readiness Assessment, the organization can set key baselines to measure the success/impact of an innovation program as well as find parts of the organization that are best suited to be early adopters of innovation programs and those parts that need a little more time.
4. Set up an innovation council. In addition to the team doing the day-to-day work, establish an innovation council to keep track of the big picture and make sure you’re executing. You’ll want representatives from operations and strategy involved to help ensure a smooth handoff from innovation to product. The Innovation Council should have the ability to unlock resources so the organization can move fast and skip some of the bureaucracy that burdens many corporate innovation programs.
5. Get involved in the ecosystem. Get involved in events outside the company. You want to build buzz throughout the ecosystem whether it’s the industry, the company’s hometown, or something else. Sponsor events where innovators gather. Partner with other organizations to tap into their expertise. Engage with startups on their turf. Put yourself where people don’t expect you to be, and learn from those experiences.
6. Create common language. When innovation teams talk to executives within the large organization, words often have different meanings. The innovation team may have built an app, but it’s a prototype and meant for experimentation. The executive team will often not have experience with prototypes and may think it’s a finished product because it looks good. Make sure through your repeatable process that common language is created to limit setting the wrong expectations.
7. Start to build a repeatable process. Big companies live on repeatable processes, and the innovation hub should not be an exception. Just as great artists rely on a creative process to nail hit after hit, corporate innovation needs process too. Otherwise you risk creating a one-hit wonder. The process should identify how to identify ideas and opportunities to build prototypes to test, and ultimately to fund future products and services.
8. Get something out the door … even if it isn’t perfect. Innovation doesn’t happen because you put the smartest people in the room. Innovation happens because you experiment, test with future customers, and listen to the data. By building minimum viable products (MVPs), innovation labs can test products, gather feedback, and improve the products in real time. MVPs deliver the minimum number of features but solve the true problems the customer cares about, reducing the overall cost and risk of the project.
9. Generate a lot of ideas from everywhere. Ideas can come from anywhere — customers, key stakeholders, channel partners, executives, and employees. Ideas create ideas that create ideas that solve $100 million problems. The important part of an innovation strategy is to have a plan for how to evaluate the ideas, and a team to build the prototypes. You’ll kill your an innovation agenda if great ideas have nowhere to go.
10. Tell a good story to focus the innovation agenda. Initiatives that prove their worth are the efforts that get funded. You may have found a cure for cancer, but if you don’t tell anyone about it and prove it works, no one will support your continued effort. Communicate internally and externally about the virtues of corporate innovation. Share the metrics your lab will be using to determine success. And explain how your goals feed into and align with business objectives.
A successful corporate innovation program requires a delicate balance of planning and adaptability. Planning and preparation are crucial, but execution and the ability to adjust to your environment are what ultimately lead to favorable results. Put in the time and effort necessary in advance to set your team up for sustainable success, then coach them to deliver continuous wins for the business.
Craig Haney is head of corporate innovation for Communitech, a startup accelerator based in Waterloo, Ontario.