How Corporate Innovation Changed In 2015: A Look Back

​This article explores several key (and generally welcome) themes that emerged within the 2015 innovation development space


There were several key (and generally welcome) themes that emerged within the 2015 innovation development space. These are, in part, driven by the increasing value that corporate and business leadership place on this (still relatively) new competency, the sophistication of practitioners in the field, and the results of seeing what works or fails. It is truly an exciting time to be in this field and to see these changes form across the industry.

As always, this list is from a personal perspective, that is perhaps biased by my experience within the field, generally working with established corporate organizations and their leaders. Let me know if you agree, or not?

The back-end of innovation has changed..

Traditionally, back-end innovation discussions and actions were focused on the process of developing ideas (e.g. stage gates, funding mechanisms, review approaches, etc.). In 2015 however, the back-end conversation is much broader. It now is focused on engaging a range of employees in the execution of ideas, and, over time, creating a culture that is more open to new thinking. This is a seismic shift in the space, and frankly, well overdue.

…leading to a focus on cultural change

Innovation culture is surely an overused word at this point, but it wasn’t even part of the conversation 2 years ago.

Innovation leaders are now seeing that their efforts need to focus on broader cultural goals if they are to drive long-term success. Individual activities are being considered within the context of 'innovation ecosystems', which seek to drive employee behavior change over time. Innovation culture is surely an overused word at this point, but it wasn’t even part of the conversation 2 years ago. Though there is lots of hyperbola around the words, the underlying actions of corporate innovation program leaders are absolutely changing.

Intrapreneurs are the new focus of innovation….

Aligned with the above changes, innovation leaders are now very clearly focused on how they can engage and drive value from their most innovative employees. This concept has been around for years, and the definition changes by company, but in 2015 it gained critical mass for the first time with more mature (not leading edge) corporate innovation programs. This is in part because it is an efficient, effective way to drive both the development of ideas and broader cultural change, often by small innovation teams. I have written about this in the past here.

…Supported by HR / L&D

HR, Learning and Development and Organizational Development professionals are now taking notice of innovative activities, often for the first time. They are considering how to increase their awareness of innovative activities, partner with innovation programs, and/or create their own innovation related efforts (listed in order of maturity / levels of investment). Whichever approach they take, these HR professionals are getting serious about innovation efforts, as an opportunity to drive immediate business value, change the cultures of their organizations and align with their (internal) client’s goals. As a result of this interest you are seeing more HR focused professionals at innovation events, more employee focused innovation actions, and a change in the perspective and definition of innovation within a corporate context (see the above back-end point). I have written about this shift in the past here and here.

Open Innovation is waning…

Open Innovation has long been positioned as the holy grail of innovation development. What always bugged me was how casually and loosely it was referenced. It all just seemed so easy. Sure “Open Innovation” as a concept is broad and open to definition, but whatever the approach, it is incredibly difficult to actively manage, drive value from, and importantly, risk control. In my perspective many companies are adjusting their expectations and actions around Open Innovation, precisely because of the difficulties in getting the concept to actually work. (I co-write an article and whitepaper around Open Innovation here and here).

…but the focus on startups remains

Innovation leaders at corporate organizations remain resolutely focused on the startup space, often through Corporate Venturing programs. The marketplace remains buoyant and approaches to engaging with startups continue to take shape. Innovation leaders do seem to take increasingly sophisticated approaches to link their established organizations with their more nimble partners. In addition, they are searching for ways to import aspects of innovative culture into their own organizations (I recently co-wrote on this here).

Incremental is the new disruption

For years now, corporate innovation leaders have been banging the drum around their desire to drive disruptive thinking, often with meager results. However, during 2015 there was a clear swing back towards incremental innovations, especially within newer programs. This is perhaps driven by a recognition of the enormous hurdles in executing disruptive ideas, but also being better at reading through the lines of bold corporate and business unit leadership claims. Anyone can say that they want disruptive ideas, but supporting that kind of activity over time is a whole different matter. Further, having a wide pipeline of incremental ideas supports many of the other major themes from the year, including broader employee engagement, driving a culture of innovation, and providing a consistent series of wins that demonstrate success. Don’t get me wrong, disruptive change is not dead, but there is just more interest in a more contained, and, frankly, realistic approach to idea development. I have written about this in the past (here and here), but will be writing more about it in weeks ahead.

Increased focus on communications

I know that this may be a more tactical trend, but throughout 2015 there was clearly an increasingly strategic and sophisticated approach around innovation communication efforts. And this makes total sense, with these efforts driving broader employee recognition, scaling up presence in often diverse, disconnected organizations, and creating channels to communicate success. I will be writing more about this in the weeks ahead.

2015 was a great year for the industry, which continues to expand, develop and just get better. This is an exciting time to be within the space, and I look forward to seeing where 2016 takes us.

Wishing you and your families a wonderful break over the holidays.

This article was originally published in Innovation Management.


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