Innovation: You're Doing It Wrong

Hackathons and innovation labs have quickly made their way from Silicon Valley into corporate boardrooms


Millions have been invested into initiatives with the intent of creating new technologies, increasing profits, and attracting top talent. Although hackathons and labs are encouraging signs, too often innovation strategy stops here.

Throughout the years, we’ve witnessed hundreds of forward thinking ideas pitched and demo'd in showrooms, but despite the fanfare, the majority never make it to market.

Wait, but why?

Corporate politics, constraints of legacy infrastructure, risk-averse culture, and bureaucracy are only some of the barriers to implementation. Without entrepreneurial values in a company's DNA, innovation initiatives will foster more resentment than optimism.

As serial entrepreneurs and design strategists, we’ve been asked to bring our "vision to market" capabilities to numerous organizations. Over several years working with more than 70 clients, we've found that 3 ingredients are essential to fostering successful innovation culture:

1) Failure happens - embrace it.

'Fail early, fail fast' is the startup entrepreneur’s slogan. The most disruptive ideas arise from risk-taking and experimentation, in which some failure is inherent. By no mean do we advocate for companies to build recklessly, but by being lean and agile throughout product development, risk can be easily mitigated.

Yet 'failure' is a word that corporations are trained to fear. Performance reviews and budget approvals based purely on one’s successes propagate a risk-averse culture. It's no surprise that employees stick with what’s been proven and become resistant to change.

Business leaders should foster an environment that rewards experimentation in the pursuit of creative ideas. This may come in the form of new performance metrics, company-wide transparency regarding failures and learnings, or employee training in lean methodologies. No matter what form this takes, leaders should acknowledge the factors that cause risk-averseness, and structurally encourage experimentation rather than penalize it.

2) Create bridges across silos.

Launching a new initiative requires the approval of multiple stakeholders. In organizations where teams operate in silos, this can be a major challenge. Unwilling supporters, unforeseen constraints, and misaligned incentives can grind projects to a halt. This challenge persists even within innovation labs, many of which are isolated teams far removed from the rest of the organization.

To overcome this, innovators and implementers (eg. front-line staff) should collaborate from the very beginning - ensuring alignment on vision and identification of constraints. Executives should consider adjusting incentives to make innovation initiatives a priority through all levels of the company.

3) Less friction, more empowerment.

Approval processes within large organizations are often complex, inefficient, and time-consuming. Innovation projects get stuck in bureaucracy limbo where they die a slow painful death. We've seen simple IT requests take weeks to complete, and access to customers for product testing being flat-out denied.

For innovation projects where idea to market speed is vital, consider special channels that bypass traditional processes for funding, development, and testing. This may come in the form of a separate funding and evaluation model for blue sky initiatives, an approvals short track giving teams access to the latest software tools and data sets, or executive advocates committed to cutting through the tangle of internal politics.

The greatest challenge with corporate innovation is not in finding the right ideas, but creating an environment where they can thrive and scale. Business leaders should recognize that to foster innovation culture, they must have the courage to embrace failure, inspire collaboration, and empower their most creative employees. 


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