What the heck does “corporate innovation” mean anyway? Is it a new product or business unit for a large company? Is it a new disruptive technology that an early stage startup is building? Is it about culture or talent? Is it all or none of the above? Maybe some of the above?
The fact is that innovation is a nebulous concept, which means that it’s a difficult goal to work towards. What are you building anyway? And how do you know how to best staff against what you’re building if you’re not quite sure what your goals are?
These questions are the exact reason why companies need more than a cookie cutter approach to building their corporate innovation teams and business units—which is why it’s easy for initiatives to get stuck as one-off projects that deliver minimal ROI. To maximize success and ROI, innovation teams command a level of flexibility and fluidity.
How can corporate Innovation leaders build a high-performing innovation team?
Start by examining patterns. We asked Michele McConomy, senior vice president and general manager to share the framework that she’s learned from working with more than +100 high-performing (and not-so-high performing) corporate innovation teams in 20 countries in her +10 years of experience.
1. They’re Time Travelers
High-performing innovation teams focus on more than the market opportunities that exist today—they’re also prioritizing the next wave of disruption and emerging tech. With so many opportunities on the horizon in the form of virtual robots, virtual reality, biometrics, IoT, mobility, and transportation, corporations are uniquely positioned to get a head start. As Michele puts it:
“The best positioned innovation teams are asking questions that are challenging to answer. How will drones play into the world of airplanes, helicopters, and defense? How will the sharing economy impact tire sales? Innovation teams need to think beyond the obvious to work with the outside world and bring that knowledge back to their businesses.”
Well-equipped with smart people, a wealth of industry knowledge, and flexibility to make investments, corporations have a unique runway to prepare themselves for emerging market opportunities. While it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future, innovation teams aim to get their minds there faster.
2. They’d Rather Play Dominoes than Monopoly
With innovation, the ‘smoking gun’ for a corporation isn’t necessarily what’s making headlines or visible to mass markets. Rather, the most viable opportunities are hidden from plain sight (think: pot of gold at the end a rainbow—something that sits at the end of a long, complex journey). Here’s how Michele explains it:
“The results of innovation are, in many ways, a domino effect. They start small to get through the stuff that usually holds these initiatives up on a big-picture level. Then, initiatives start paying off, and there’s a ripple effect.”
To affect changes in large corporations innovation efforts often begin in a small, isolated place—this approach helps companies strike a delicate balance between their intermediate and longer-term goals. As teams begin to learn, take risks, and validate their ideas, companies will begin to feel the effects in their core business units.
3. They’ve Flown from the Bird’s Nest but Know When to Come Home
One of the biggest innovation killers is friction. From compliance to IT, HR, and shareholder goals it’s challenging for leaders to take the risks that they need to explore gray areas in disruption. That’s why these teams need a high degree of independence from their core operations.
But still, these teams remain stronger as part of a corporate arm. As Michele explains, successful innovation teams will balance, rather than struggle with the, two seemingly opposite worlds of fast-paced (startup) and established structure (corporate).
“For innovation teams, there needs to be a balance between being in isolation and being fully ingrained in the business. You need an environment to make things happen quickly when you’re getting them off the ground, but you need enough of a connection back to the business to truly understand the problems, opportunities, and path to scale.”
4. They Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Startups and corporations may seem like the antithesis of one another, but if you think about it, you’ll see that they’re two peas in a pod. There are many different ways that early- and late-stage organizations can join forces to bring their strategic objectives to market faster along the way. As Michele puts it:
“These are initiatives that can become a part of a company. It’s important to identify technologies that can be incorporated into the core business.”
Why build a critical piece of technology from the ground up when it’s possible to gain access to that resource through acquisition or a startup-corporate partnership, such as a licensing agreement? The most successful innovation teams always keep a birds eye view of their industries, markets, and disruptive technologies.
5. They Have High Emotional Intelligence
If they’re doing their jobs right, innovation teams will face higher likelihoods of failure than almost any other company function. But this reality can be challenging to embrace. That’s why emotional intelligence is so critical for any successful innovation team.
“Fearlessness, curiosity, passion. The knowledge of how to connect, facilitate, navigate. These qualities are key to success on any innovation team. You need to find people who don’t look at innovation as a political play or hierarchy. Part of the challenge is realizing throughput, in that you’re part of a high functioning team if you can do a lot with very little—even if your efforts result in failure”
They know that success comes from the heart. And, that failure is a critical component of successful innovation programs. They’re comfortable with ambiguity, know how to compartmentalize business risks, and know how to ask for help when they need it.
Innovation requires a careful balance of thoughtfulness, creativity, and agility—and it’s important to remember that no one person will meet all of these checkmarks. That’s why it’s important to remember that your team is steering an entire ship. Collaboration is key, and the traits above will help ensure that you have a continuous, birds eye view into the market to help you outsmart friction and move forward when you’re stuck.
Looking for extra advice on how to bring your corporate innovation initiatives to market faster? Need an extra set of eyes to explore untapped opportunities for your business? Check out our Corporate Innovation Services to learn how the RocketSpace team helps hundreds of enterprise leaders worldwide. And don’t hesitate get in touch to see how we help innovation teams learn about, work like, and work with startups!
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