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7 Treasured Lessons from 7 years in Corporate Innovation Initiatives

"You can't solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level." - Albert Einstein

"Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze." - Peter Drucker

"We've reached the end of incrementalism. Only those companies that are capable of creating industry revolutions will prosper in the new economy". - Gary Hamel

I’ve been part of different corporate innovation initiatives for about 7 years of my professional career and it has been an amazing journey and phenomenal learning experience. Along this journey, I've had the opportunity to play a diverse set of roles and take-on a varied portfolio of responsibilities - from being the Business Owner to a Innovation / Solution Manager to a Consultant to Market Researcher to a Marketing / GTM (Go-To-Market) Specialist. I've interacted with a diverse set of individuals for ideation, conceptualization, validation, collaboration, commercialization, marketing – internal and external to the organization {partners, analysts, customers (Diverse verticals, Diverse positions in the organizational hierarchy [starting from the CEO to end-users] and from different parts of the globe}.I've been involved in diverse kinds of innovation projects – from business to technology to process; each with a different team composition (2 to 30+).

During this tenure, the most noteworthy change is that corporate innovation has transitioned from “Nice to Do” to “Good to Do” to “Must Do”. So today, organizations have to innovate to survive. There is no other way! which is both good and bad news - depending on where you are in the innovation journey continuum.

How does anyone define the success of a corporate innovation?” you may ask

The answer is simple and straight forward: The innovation initiative should generate the promised Return on Investment. If not, it is usually considered a failure in the business sense.

Going purely by this definition, I’d have to confess that some of the corporate innovation initiatives that I’ve been a part of were probably only partly successful… but here's the thing...

Did we have cool ideas? Sure – We did!
Did we have a grand vision? Sure – We did!
Did we have a great team? Sure - We did!
Did we build what we set out to? Sure – We did!
Did we win business? Sure – We did!
Most importantly, Did we LEARN, GROW and EVOLVE? Sure – We did!

So what were the lessons learned along the way?

(1) Corporate Innovation should be a top priority from the top

If corporate innovation is to have a fair chance at success it should be a TOP PRIORITY for the TOP management. Simply because, this is the crucial in the kind of focus, investments, team, collaboration, support and governance that any innovation initiative will be able to garner.

Key Take-Away: The probability of success of an innovation initiative within an organization is directly linked to the PRIORITY associated with it!

(2) There are 3 distinct phases in the Innovation Life Cycle and each requires a different mind-set

There are 3 distinct phases in the Innovation Life Cycle – One is the Conceptualization phase, Two is the Implementation phase and Three is the Commercialization phase.

The most important point to recognize is that each of these phases requires a different mind-set for success. The conceptualization phase requires a “researcher / analytical” mind-set, The Implementation phase requires an “engineering” mind-set and the “Commercialization” phase requires a “trading / business” mind-set.

In my professional experience, it is usually rare for the same individual within an organization to exhibit all these 3 mind-sets simultaneously. For e.g.: There are architects who can conceptualize the next generation technology solution but they probably fall short when it comes to sales and monetization. Similarly, a Project Manager who does an excellent job as a part of the engineering and development activities may fall short in terms of conceptualization of the vision.

Key Take-Away: For any innovation initiative, it becomes important to have a cross-functional team with complementary skills and strengths to be successful across the innovation life cycle.

(3) Your idea need not be unique ; How you position your innovation makes all the difference

The most often asked question (from internal and external audience) for any innovation initiative has been this “What’s unique about your innovation offering?”.

To be honest, this was really tough many times because there was probably nothing unique or exclusive about the idea itself. However, the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) was how we positioned the offering and the potential value it could bring to particular customer segment. So while there are a lot of questions around uniqueness, we learned how to answer these over a period of time – both to internal and external stakeholders.

Key Take-Away: Your idea need not be unique. What really makes the difference is how you position your innovation and articulate the same

(4) The business plan is a baseline plan

Yes! However great your idea is and how much ever time data and research you do to come up with the magic numbers for your business plan which includes Investments, Returns and Profit Margins - There is no way anyone can guarantee success.

What can really make a difference is this:

  1. The business plan has to be logical and constructed based on the available data collected from the right sources
  2. Trust the gut instincts / Collective wisdom of those with experience in the specific area. For e.g.: There will be times when you won’t have all the data to prove your point – But a domain expert (with say 15 years in the industry) says with conviction that you should invest in a specific area – Give value to his / her opinion
  3. Use the business plan as a baseline plan. Evolve and build on the plan as you progress along the innovation journey
  4. Your business plan should have an EXIT strategy. At some point in the innovation journey, the right thing to do is cut your losses and exit

Key Take-Away: The Business Plan is the baseline plan. It will evolve with time based on your own understanding and market feedback. Refine it along the way. If some of your assumptions were wrong, make the required course corrections. Don’t lose sight of your end-objective!

(5) When you start the GTM [Go-To-Market] activities can make all the difference in your commercial success

The GTM activities for any innovation need to begin when the engineering / development activities start. Simply because the sooner your share details of the innovation offering with internal and external stakeholders – The sooner you get real market feedback! You don’t need to act on every one of this feedback – But you at least are able to generate awareness and interest on your offering even before you have a “working model” to demo. Not to mention, this feedback can be valuable for you to determine the market interest, potential pricing model and possibly gather data on customer budgets and spending. And of course it can also give you additional requirements on how you can build / enhance your offering for the future.

Key Take-Away: Begin your GTM activities along with your Engineering activities. Simply because the feedback (internal / external) you receive can really make a difference in enhancing and enriching your offering.

(6) The first customer is the most crucial in your journey to success

Again, the most important milestone in any corporate innovation is the first customer win! And this determines the active life of an innovation (For e.g: Most organizations expect some financial returns in a span of at least 12 months. If there are no customer wins in this duration, then there is internal pressure to critically review the progress and also possibly discontinue further efforts on the innovation initiative itself), the kind of organizational interest and support your initiative receives and the kind of future business prospects you can target. No matter how unique your idea is and how well engineered your innovation is, what matters in the world of business is this – “What was the contribution to the top-line growth? What was the contribution to the bottom line growth?”

Key Take-Away: Focused efforts should be invested for the FIRST customer WIN! And if you have the first win while the development and engineering activities are under-way, even better!

(7) Internal Communication and Collaboration is critical to survive, sustain and grow

Periodic internal communication between the members of the innovation team is absolutely critical to succeed – Not only does this ensures transparency but also fosters ownership which is especially important for innovation projects.

Also, it is important that key stakeholders within the organization have a realistic and holistic view of the progress. What is important is is to ensure that a balance is maintained between the short term, medium term and long term objectives to ensure the right activities get the required focus and priority. And the same should be communicated internally!

One of the most common mistakes is that in the initial phases a very positive picture is painted to all key stakeholders about the progress. However in the long term (when the customer wins don’t happen as planned or expected), the report is completely different. And at that point, no amount of data, reports, answers, explanation and reasoning really make a difference!

Key Take-Away: Be transparent, open and honest in internal communications. It is advisable to share all key information with key stakeholders periodically to ensure that you receive the right help, support and advice from internal stakeholders.

What are your views? What is the most important aspect for any corporate innovation initiative to succeed? Leave a comment to let me know.

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Comments: (2)

Karim Maalouf
Karim Maalouf - Path Solutions - Beirut 09 September, 2015, 07:39Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Thank you Nischala for this interesting article, I really enjoyed reading it.

I was very close to your thinking as I work in IT Financial services and innovation is crucial in this field.

What you cited are essential to every Manager, Director, EVP and CEO to think about and share the strategy with his team.

Nischala Murthy Kaushik
Nischala Murthy Kaushik - Wipro Ltd. - Noida 09 September, 2015, 11:111 like 1 like

Thank you so much Karim for your comment. Glad it connected with you.. Please do share in your network with anyone who might benefit from reading..

Thanks again