How NOT to set up a Corporate Innovation Team

It’s probably one of the questions I get asked most often; how do you set up a Corporate Innovation Team ?

So first, in true consultancy style we challenge the question; do you really want to set up a Corporate Innovation Team or do you want to promote a culture of continuous innovation across your business ?

See what I did there …

I have personally worked in and managed Corporate Innovation Teams across a diverse range of businesses. They have all had a few things in common:

The Rock Stars – They are typically led by super-bright, cool young things in the early stage of their careers and therefore willing and able to take a risk.  Other Rock Star characteristics:

  • Usually male but I would love to include some examples about female innovation leaders;
  • Been identified as a future leader within the business and have recently been on a weighty management course such as an MBA or Harvard Business School;
  • Likely approached the CEO personally armed with a business case for setting up the new Innovation Team. This is borne out of a genuine passion and a frustration the business is missing out on opportunities or is facing disruptive threats.

The Rebels – The Rock Stars are joined by free thinkers from the wider business who think they have at last have found their niche within the corporate structure.  These rebels are supplemented by external hires who generally have a few failed start-ups under their belt or experience of other Corporate Innovation Teams.

Shortened Life Expectancy – I have worked with Corporate Innovation Teams which have cost millions of pounds and some which have made millions of pounds in new revenue, but typically after 2 or 3 years they have been shut down.

So, bearing in mind this life expectancy issue, coupled with a specific resource constraint effecting one of our clients we are trying a new approach.  Inspired by a model in “The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge” by Vijay Govindarajan; we are definitely NOT setting up a Corporate Innovation Team.

What we do have are Innovation Project Teams which meet for just one day a week in a dedicated innovation space.  The teams are made up of hand-picked individuals from the wider business who are released for one day a week.  But crucially, these teams are supported by a shared innovation function; two people who can work across several projects for the remainder of the week.  The team is aligned around one plan.  This is an experiment which has not been without teething problems but it is moving forwards.

In my experience, if you want to foster an innovation culture within a corporate environment there is no simple answer; but maybe the role of the “old school” Corporate Innovation Team is dead.  As Steve Banks, serial entrepreneur and thought leader suggests; by the middle of the 21st century the only companies with “skunk works” will be those which have failed to master continuous innovation.

I do think Corporates will always need Rock Stars and Rebels; you just need to start thinking of more innovative ways of working with them.

See what I did there, I’ll let you know how it goes…

Interesting Stuff:

Here is a link to Vijay Govindarajan talking about “Solving the Execution Challenge”