I gave a series of talks last week to 600+ executives of a multi-billon dollar firm about startups, small business creation and corporate innovation. Afterwards there were many questions but you know the core theme already; how can we operate with more innovation?
As a long-time intrapreneur (an entrepreneur operating inside of a large company) and just as long as an entrepreneur and investor, I have lived on the front line of disrupting innovation my entire adult life. The key word here is disruption not innovation. Innovation is too generic. Is there really a company out there who does not believe that they are innovative? True innovation teams inside of a 40 to 140 year old firm must think in disruptive terms.
I have lived inside two 100+ year old companies and have the scars to show for my efforts.
The challenge for each of you is to determine whether your innovation strategy is paper-thin and more window-dressing or if you have a real charter to achieve full disruption. For the sake of this article, I am going to focus on new businesses as opposed to incremental improvements to existing business lines.
Twenty years inside a billion dollar company is no excuse to not embrace disruption. For those of you who are inspired to find disruptive new businesses for your current business, check off these required must-haves for true corporate innovation:
Curious Culture. It starts from the top as any large effort always does. Is your culture built on curiosity? Are there every day examples of staff asking questions like the 5 Why's in Eric Reis's Lean Startup? I love the word curious and look for it in conversations with everyone I meet.
No Fear Mindset. Fear is the great common inhibitor to disruptive innovation. Startups live with this every minute, large corporations significantly less so. If you are overly concerned with the outcome of your decisions then you are operating with fear. You and your team have to be able to create new product/services without fear of retribution.
Funding with VC-Like Oversight. Capital is the gas that makes the car run and without it you have a shiny car that is useless. Operate the innovation team like a venture fund would operate which means make a number of bets and apply investment discipline. Not sure how? Find the most prolific local investor and pick their brain. Or find me. I ran a corporate venture fund whose mission was to disrupt with capital.
Remove from Exiting Business Units. You can't get into trouble with Mom or Dad looking over your shoulder every day. Fully disruptive ventures need to be removed from the business they are trying to disrupt. At Rand McNally, we placed the newly formed Internet group on an abandoned floor and outfitted the space with graffiti and crappy furniture (like a startup). Our message--this is a different space with different rules.
No Restrictions on New Business Models. Remember the disruptive part of the innovation theme? Restrict the business model and you restrict disruption. Limits fuel an incremental approach, which is fine within existing business units. If you want to swing for the fences, then you must let the team operate without any limits. There are no set answers going in, the teams must be armed with your full support to uncover what comes next.
Operational Protection from Legal, HR and Finance. My favorite question last week was "but how do you work with HR, Legal, etc. and remain innovative"? My answer was quick and to the point--"who are they, I asked with a wry smile". By definition, these functional units are built to protect the company. We all understand that. Their DNA is to say no first. You must have the ability to execute outside of their rules. No wiggle room here.
Leaders with Innovation Experience. This is THE killer for all innovation initiatives within large corporations. Typically C-suite executives identify the most dynamic up and coming senior executive for this role. This person has an ability to think creatively but is balanced with years of insider experience. They will know how to operate within the company structure and they already have a couple pairs of hipster jeans they think. Bad idea. Disruptive leaders don't care about their long-term position--they wake up ready to risk it all. Do yourself a favor and find someone outside the company who has lived the startup world multiple times and give them the reins.
This innovation thing is not easy for anyone and even harder for multi-billion dollar corporations. Embrace these activities and give disruption a true chance. Your alternative is corporate death. Its not a matter of if--only when.