The First 5 Things to Do When You’re Given Responsibility for Corporate Innovation

In most corporations, innovation teams face significant challenges before they even get started. And the more prominently celebrated and resourced they are, the greater those challenges. 

Consider the following scenario: a core business team works day after day to maintain and enhance one of the main products that keeps their corporation alive. One day, the CEO unveils a new innovation team with a large budget, a beautiful new design space, the newest technology, no dress code, and catered lunches. The core business team wonders why the innovation folks get all sorts of toys and considerations before they’ve done anything. Jealousy and resentment rise. 

Fast-forward one year. The innovation team delivers slides — and not much more. As it becomes clear that the innovation team won’t deliver sizeable returns, much less unicorns, the core business team is ready with pitchforks to tear down the innovation team with glee. 

In my experience, there are clear steps that innovation leaders can take to mitigate these risks, while increasing the likelihood that they — and their teams — can generate a concrete ROI for their company. These are the five things I would do first.

1. Clarify the corporate innovation “Job-to-be-done”

Much like a mobile phone is a solution that helps us communicate, innovation is a solution that helps corporations do things like grow faster or develop new capabilities. In the same way that different mobile phones are better for different communication needs, innovation strategy and execution must be carefully designed to match a corporation’s desired outcomes or it will fail. It is therefore critical to establish early, clear alignment with senior leaders on what defines success for the innovation initiative.

If “help the core business acquire new customers by demonstrating that we are innovative” is the Job-to-be-done, the optimal solution might be an “innovation theater” space featuring lots of glass, carts of prototyping supplies, inspirational posters and busy groups of eclectically dressed “innovators.”

In contrast, if “accelerate corporate growth by incubating and commercializing new disruptive businesses” is the Job-to-be-done, the optimal solution might include a bare bones innovation space located out of the way and filled with little more than whiteboards and silence, because its teams are out in the field, co-creating with potential customers. Due to lack of clarity here, most innovation leaders tend to build the former while encouraging outcomes more aligned with the latter. The result is an innovation initiative — and accompanying set of priorities — that poorly addresses both Jobs.

Success in all things innovation requires carefully defining the desired outcome (or Job) and developing the right innovation initiative “solution” to address that Job.

2. Build strong relationships through humility and curiosity

Innovation, particularly because of the change associated, evokes strong emotions. For the corporate innovation team, the challenge — and driving the change — is likely inspiring. In contrast, those outside the team may feel disrespected, envious and even threatened. If left unchecked, these feelings may strengthen and spread, accelerating the innovation team’s demise. It is therefore critical to launch an innovation initiative with early outreach to those within the organization whose support and resources may be required to sustain the initiative.

As I describe in this earlier piece, identify the key enabling individuals and teams and give them respect and appreciation by spending time with them. Make clear that they are the experts and that it is very important to learn from their experience and to understand their expectations for innovation. Ask far more questions than provide answers. Begin building trusting, humble relationships which will insulate the innovation initiative from challenges at a minimum and will accelerate its success at a maximum.

3. Seek only MVRs (Minimum Viable Resources)

Senior leadership misalignment and lack of organizational enrollment are two drivers of failure. If one or both are in place, the greater the innovation initiative budget (and flashy considerations), the more quickly influential opponents will emerge. Unfortunately, innovation has already become more synonymous with flash than substance in many corporations. If the initiative makes outsized business impact prognostications while delivering slide-centric results, the environment will be toxic. It is therefore critical to stay under the radar as much as possible. The conventional wisdom that flashy innovation considerations are a necessary precondition for results is wrong. Start small and humble with only the minimum number of people and amount of budget required to quickly achieve results. Do everything possible to blend in with the core business teams — dress like everyone else, eat in the cafeteria, use standard conference rooms for team sessions. From day one, prioritize generating quantifiable business impact — rather than slides — to tell the innovation initiative story.

4. Win by hitting singles and doubles

Innovation teams are certain to lose if incubating billion-dollar “unicorn” ventures is the only way to win. In contrast, if you’ve done items one through three successfully, you’ve set the expectation that your initiative has a lot of learning to do and that it’s going to act like a startup, scrappily figuring out the best path forward. With those MVRs — a little bit of money, a few people — in hand, prioritize creating quick, measurable returns. While the initiative’s ultimate goal may be to build disruptive growth businesses — and so conventional wisdom is to stay away from core business activities — winning points with core business leaders may actually be essential to success. The best course of action could therefore be helping core business teams solve challenges through design thinking. It could also be developing a new business from clean sheet to MVP as quickly and cheaply as possible. The objective is to generate substantive results (not slides) that surprise the organization because of how efficiently they were achieved.

5. Rinse and repeat, always ensuring that results lead resources

If you’ve done items # 1 through 4 successfully, the results you’ve achieved with limited resources should open eyes and create supporters. Make sure to share the results and lessons learned with humility — yes, that all important word again. Make sure to give credit to the core business unit leaders and teams and to the others in the organization whose input and assistance — however limited — created value. Then seek the additional resources required to make successfully hitting singles and doubles more systematic while also exploring how to hit a triple. Even if the objective is to incubate new solutions and businesses that will require years to commercialize, prioritize those that can generate any sort of measurable return — a first dollar of revenue or customer letter-of-intent (not slides) — in weeks or months. If you do all of this correctly, substantive, valued results — and core business unit support — will tell the initiative’s story, ensuring that it has a future.