Finding Your Innovation Allies

By Kaitlin Milliken |  September 24, 2019

In our recent Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2020 Report, 75 percent of respondents cited leadership support from CEOs, business unit leaders, and others as the top enabler. So we wanted to know, “How can you find innovation allies?” To get best practices, InnoLead traveled to Bose’s headquarters, talked to an expert from Philips Healthcare, and gathered guidance from KPMG. 

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This episode is sponsored by KPMG. As a leading professional services firm, KPMG provides innovative business solutions and audit, tax, and advisory services. They’re also the sponsor of our 2020 Benchmarking Report, sharing research and best practices on innovation from over 200 companies. For the full report, visit  Or, meet the KPMG team at Impact, this October 22 through the 24 in San Francisco.


Fiona Grandi: Innovation champions are unique heroes in the business environment.

NB Patil: Champions actually is a key that we use also in the company.

Bill Gaussa: Each of the business leaders I work with, we have developed a personal relationship.

Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. In each episode, we ask a central question about the things that make change hard at large companies. Then, we get answers from experts about how businesses can overcome these challenges and make an impact. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

To kick off our third season, we wanted to know: How can you find innovation allies?

In our Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2020 report, we asked 215 innovation, strategy, and R&D executives about innovation enablers at their companies. An overwhelming majority — 75 percent — cited leadership support from CEOs, business unit leaders, and others as the top enabler.

But, getting that support isn’t easy. Often times, corporations are hostile to change and the innovators who are pushing for something new.

Bill Gaussa: I’ll be honest with you, when we started this process years ago, the skepticism was so high that you actually had people rallying for failure. Imagine you’re trying to present this stuff and there’s more nay-sayers in the room than people willing to give you a shot. “There’s no way we’re ever gonna do this. There’s no way this is ever gonna happen.” We call it “Eeyore syndrome” inside of our business. A lot of people coming in the room like that, down and out, “no way in hell, this is not gonna work.”

Kaitlin Milliken: That was Bill Gaussa, Head of Advanced Innovation and Venture Leader at Philips Healthcare. We interviewed Bill as a part of the aforementioned Benchmarking report. He says creating trust can help teams combat Eeyore syndrome. And luckily, he also left tips to help other innovators gain their colleagues’ confidence.

Step one: [IDEA BELL] Get leadership support.

Bill Gaussa: The CEO of the company stands behind these innovative ventures, knows that they’re absolutely essential to do, and he made a bet, and this is key. Having an executive who makes a bet saying, “What brought us here today, is not going to get us here to go forward.”

Kaitlin Milliken: Step two: [IDEA BELL] Spend time fostering relationships.

Bill Gaussa: Each of the business leaders I work with, we have developed a personal relationship not a business relationship. I think that’s essential here. We talk about how to change the world together. We talk about what’s our challenges together. We talk about, “What do you think, what else could you do?” It could be on a project or whatever, together. We don’t look at each other as “my job is to execute, your job is to define the strategy.” We look at ourselves as a team, and I think that is what has made it so doable.

Kaitlin Milliken: In the best case scenario, support comes from all parts of the organization. Senior leaders, all the way up to the C-Suite, and your colleagues in the business units, have your back.

So, what does that actually look like? To find out, we drove out to the Bose headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts. We’ll be back with more from Bose after this break.


Kaitlin Milliken: So, you’re a corporate innovator looking for best practices on running your program. Obviously, I mean, you’re listening to this show. But sometimes, listening to podcasts, or reading articles, just aren’t enough. You want to actually meet other executives, focused on creating change at their companies.

But don’t worry, we have you covered. Our 2019 Impact Conference is our biggest gathering of the year. It’s 2 days with over 350 attendees from 100+ companies. There’ll be break out sessions from FitBit, Impossible Foods, Bayer, NASA, Intel, and more. We’re all about honesty here at InnoLead, so all of our events are off-the-record. That means you can share your roadblocks — and workshop solutions — openly with your peers. So join us in San Francisco on October 22 through the 24. To buy a ticket or learn more, visit


And we’re back at the Bose Headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts. When you get to Bose, you see the staples of a corporate office. They’ve got a cafeteria, conference rooms — the works. But when you walk down a long hallway and through the double doors, it’s like stepping into another world.

Sitting in a Costco-like warehouse, is the company’s prototyping and maker space. Red and orange letters hang from the ceiling and read, “Welcome to Rapid Proto.” More colorful signs mark the different work stations — pointing out drivers, pneumatic tools, a CAD station.

Designers sit in a central room with big glass windows. And to the right, there’s a space dedicated to the Corporate Concept Group. This team was set up to breakdown organizational barriers. They’re aware of the different applied research across the company and seek to foster collaboration. Their projects focus on Horizon 3 innovations — those longer term transformational projects for the company — as well as Horizon 2, or adjacent, products.

However, innovation wasn’t always so open in Bose. In the past, groups kept their innovations secret. One part of the room is sectioned off by a tall metal fence and draped with a blanket to prevent wandering eyes. That’s a remnant of the old way.

To find out more about the shift, we sat down with NB Patil and Kendra Winn. NB is the Head of the Bose Corporate Concept Group. And Kendra is the portfolio management for the Concept Group.

You both work with the Corporate Concept Group. Can you tell me about some of the projects your team works on?

NB Patil: The Corporate Concept Group actually is responsible for developing concepts for across the company. That includes the Horizon 3 incubations, H2, parts of the all the divisions that Bose’s actually involved in: consumer electronics, automotive, Bose Health, as well as The Bose Professional Group. We’re also chartered to actually support the startup community that the Bose actually Venture Team invested in. In addition to that, the Concept Group is set up and empowered to actually come up with the concept of their own that actually enables any of these divisions or in some cases, a whole new concept that actually could start a new initiative for Bose. The leadership actually decided  combining all the Concept Group within one umbrella and giving them all the tools and capabilities that they need, was the right way to go. And that’s why we’re here.

Kaitlin Milliken: Before we started recording, you mentioned that this group is meant to break barriers. Can you explain what that means and how the group is set up to do that?

NB Patil: I think we have like four big things that actually makes us unique and different. The first one is basically the environment that we’re actually setting up, the culture and the physical space, where we are actually breaking down the walls between the organizational structures. Whenever there is a need to build the right concept and we need to bring the right people to the mix, we can actually go and reach out to them. And the second part is, the space that we have allowed actually — so we have capabilities to take an idea on a napkin to a working prototype. So you could imagine all the skill set and then the function that’s come in between that allows us to actually realize the concept in a much faster way then we had done before. And then, second part is actually the visibility of the work. And Kendra will talk about that.

Kendra Winn: When we started Bose Labs, about a year and a half ago, as NB mentioned, a lot of the research projects were on separate Excel spreadsheets and didn’t come up for air to get shown to the rest of the community that’s working on research and technology early on in the development. And we really put a focus on making that visible to the entire community that’s working in this area. And that’s both with “what are the the projects, who do you have to contact to find out more,” and then quarterly having, it’s called Bose labs Expo, and it’s our favorite time of the year. It happens quarterly. And we have the teams just come and put what they’re working on on a desk or on a poster, and they show up and they talk about it. The last one in May, you could really see the cohesion of the teams and the technologies and the ideas just percolating across the groups. And they’re making the connections and moving things forward much faster than we had historically.

Kaitlin Milliken: A lot of what you mentioned involves bringing in the business units, how does the Corporate Concept Group actually connect with folks across the organization?

NB Patil: There are two parts of the business engagement that we have. The one is the H3 incubations. So the the leader of the incubation actually reports into the same structure that I report into. So we have the visibility into all the new initiatives that’s happening within the company. So we get to know early on actually what those are. And then we get to take part in those and start influence in terms of how we can actually help them build those concepts.

The second part of the business engagement is actually the business units in the mostly in the H2 space in the Horizon 2 space. The Bose Labs event that Kendra mentioned, is an opportunity where the business leaders actually also get invited to those, the demos, and they get to see what we’re doing. And in some cases, actually, there is a concept demos and technology demos. And I think most of the time, they get excited about the technology demos, because when they see a technology and they see the actually it could add value to some of the product concept or product they’re thinking about that’s when they actually reach out to and say, “I would love to take those couple of technology that you demonstrated and build a concept for us.” And then they kick off a project. And typically when we kick off a concept project, it is one of those things where “who are we will bring from your table?” Like typically one of the product managers, and a couple of key folks that actually really excited about that concept. And then we actually feel everything that’s required to take that concept to the next level. And then we put all of them in one room, and then kick off and then start.

Kaitlin Milliken: What happens to projects at the end of the day? Do they go back to the business units to be scaled?

NB Patil: When the team of let’s say, let’s say the team of 6 to 8 people work on the concept for a couple months. If a couple of those folks in that concept group actually are interested in that particular concept and application of the product, and they want to continue to go into Horizon 2, and then even Horizon 1, because they’re so excited about that concept, we enable that because that’s what we told earlier, we don’t have an organization boundaries. We would love to do what the employees want to do. So, so we feel that actually, there is enough coverage and resource, from concept all the way to product. For the product to be successful.

Kaitlin Milliken: I’d love to talk about securing support and champions from leadership. Can you share about what role that plays for the concept group?

NB Patil: As I mentioned earlier, I think we are a result of the lot of learnings that Bose has been trying for the last few years. And because of that we have a great support from our president and all the leaders across the company. They know what we can bring to the table in terms of concepting and early learnings.

Kendra Winn: When we first started, there was a lot of hesitation to share the work. So I mentioned that there was transparency of all the work that’s going on, historically, people felt that they needed to keep it tight until it got to a level that they could actually share it. And with the CEO’s support saying, “Just show me what you got, I want to see all your ideas. If we come together, we can really strengthen them and make the next big thing for Bose.” So he’s really been supportive to break down the walls of the level that it needs to be at to share. So we’re much more early on and comfortable with what we share and getting the support from the leadership was key for that.

NB Patil: Champions actually is a key that we use in the company. For every technology or for any concept, we have a champion. So typically they start at the concept level and then be there all the way to H1. Because of that actually, there’s one or two people actually are there concept all the way to product.

Kaitlin Milliken: We hear a lot from our members that sometimes people outside of the innovation team may be really risk averse. How do you get support when there may be a risk of failure?

NB Patil: That is still a challenge for us also, but again, one of the ways we are actually mitigating that is putting all the right stuff into the concept and then getting in early and then going in front of the users. I think the risk part actually comes to the picture when we don’t have the data to prove that actually what we built is actually what people want. We do a lot of like iterative process, bringing the concept of putting in front of people, learning from it, and adapting it. That iterative process and the learning that we get out of that is actually helps a lot in terms of a product team coming here and say, “I understand what you have done. And then I can take it from here and then actually build at that scale.” Without that actually, you’d be one of those things where I don’t know that I can build it because they haven’t if you haven’t built it so…

We are allowed to fail. So, we have not signed up to say, “Everything that we do is actually has to go into a product roadmap.” Because of that actually will try to de risk the concept early on, but there are cases where some of the concepts that we’re working on may not work out. And that’s okay. I think that is the empowerment and enable-ment, but it doesn’t matter how bad your idea is. Come forward, and we’ll build a concept, and then we learn from it.

Kendra Winn: I had one other piece to add. The way that we’re working is with sprint team. So they are running the concepts for about three months in length. And every two weeks we come up for air, and we have a demo. And when we have that demo, we’re inviting the right people from development to come in and see that and experience it and kind of have the background story of where we what, what took us to that place and where we’re going, and be able to influence if they have good ideas.

So having that visibility and ownership from the development side early is something new. And it’s really strong for us. In the past, a lot of times that, when you’re handing off between research and advanced development and development, the team, the engineers wouldn’t trust all the backstory of  how that team had gotten to the place that they are. So they would take it back and rework. So that rework cycle has delayed us significantly in the past. So we’re really, this is moving us forward much faster.

Kaitlin Milliken: Your group has support from the top, you have folks in the business units who are willing to partner with you. What advice do you have for teams who struggle with getting that support?

Kendra Winn: One of the things you can focus on is what’s not working at your company and being very clear that there’s ways to go faster. And in order to do that it’s a decent amount of change management to get here. But, having the top level support, understand what are the problems that you see at your level that slowing down the teams, and just being very clear that there’s better ways to do it. So it’s been a transformation for us.

NB Patil: In the past, like all these concepts and ideas actually happened in a silo, in this very small thing. And if you want to actually make the difference, and enable them to share and collaborate across the teams, and so that each other can benefit from the others. And typically what happens is, if you’re really good at software, you tend to do a lot of software-heavy work and wait for other disciplines to come through. The same thing with the hardware. If you are experts in hardware, you build that on that and wait for software. But having this visibility and collaboration where each other can share, and help each other, to actually come together and build this content is a key. And what we are doing is actually we are putting a structure and a process to enable that at the higher level.


Kaitlin Milliken: So breaking down barriers allows the business units to understand the innovation process.

To get other tips on assembling innovation allies, we went to New York to talk to Fiona Grandi. Fiona is the National Managing Partner for Innovation and Enterprise Solutions at KPMG. In her role, she is responsible for driving the cultural, strategic, and financial advancement of KPMG’s innovation efforts. We should also note that KPMG is a sponsor of this podcast episode and InnoLead’s recent report.

To get us started, what are innovation champions? And what role do they play at big companies?

Fiona Grandi: Innovation champions are unique heroes in the business environment. They’re certainly creative individuals, but something that distinguishes them is their ability to commit their resources — which could be their personal time, their career path, it could be their relationship capital — really to develop ideas. They have a particular kind of open mindset. They’re influencers. They really have a sense of how to gain groundswell around an idea, or perhaps change somebody who doesn’t agree with the idea. And I also think that they are very good at knowing what they don’t know, and seeking out individuals that have different perspectives, and might give them a different lens on what they’re trying to accomplish.

Kaitlin Milliken: So we saw this in our Benchmarking Report last year that people found champions and allies really helpful. But how do you actually find them?

Fiona Grandi: Finding allies is really, at its fundamental basis, about networking kind of 101. You need to look for different types of people. You want individuals who are going to give you honest answers. You’re going to want individuals who you may need their support down the road, when you are trying to get stakeholder agreement around a piece of innovation. Or you may want those people that just, you know, look at the world in a different way than you do.

And it’s not one of these, it’s all of these have to be allies to really give you that full perspective. When you find individuals like this, they will really accelerate what you’re trying to do. And I think it’s important to sit down and map out who you think these people are, and then identify where you’ve got holes in that relationship or ally map, and come up that wish list of people that perhaps you don’t know, or who have not supported you in the past, to get on board, get to know what you’re trying to accomplish better.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned getting people on board who may not have been supportive in the past. A lot of our members want to know, how do you convince someone who’s skeptical of innovation to support you?

Fiona Grandi: You need to know the detractors and people who are prone to disagree with changing. It’s difficult to change somebody’s attitude at times. Probably one of the most important things you can do is understand what the individual’s agenda is, what their business mandate is, and why they may disagree with what you’re trying to do.

The other thing is really trying to understand what their personal perspective is. I think when you make it personal, and you ask what they think about innovation, or what may be something that’s a hot topic to them, and grounding yourself around that, you’ll find that you’ll get farther faster.

Kaitlin Milliken: And I’d love to explore how you build allies with the folks at the top. How do you get senior leadership to be a member of your network of champions?

Fiona Grandi: I think it’s the same concept is developing allies. However, I think that it requires more pre-work, more homework, around understanding their business goals and how their teams operate, and even their personal styles.

Don’t underestimate the amount of time that it takes, and bring along friends with you. In other words, if you know that a particular leader, really resonates with somebody who’s sort of adjacent to your innovation activities, bring them into it. So make it less about me versus you, and more about having a group discussion and the collective thinking.

Kaitlin Milliken: We hear a lot that it’s easier to get support once you have a track record of success. What can you do if your initiative is in its early stages and doesn’t have that history behind it?

Fiona Grandi: If you are well known, or your horse in the race is already expected to win, then you’re going to have a much easier time than if you’re sort of the underdog or you’re just an unknown commodity. There’s a lot of things that you can do to elevate your brand, and the perception of your innovation team, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

The nuance there is two things. One is, it’s really not about bragging. But you need to get the message out there of the wins that you have had or things that would indicate that you’re on a path that’s a positive one or one that’s likely for success. The other thing is don’t expect charity. So go into conversations where individuals don’t know you or you’re trying to garner support, but bring something to the table, connect the dots on how what you’re doing may help their objectives. And don’t expect that they’re just going to sign up to commit time or support for you without that exchange and trust involved.

Kaitlin Milliken: Last time we met, you talked about speaking the language of the different departments, which you’ve kind of touched on, but I’d love it if you could explain that a little bit more.

Fiona Grandi: It’s important to get to what is the currency of who you’re working with. You have to invest in understanding why someone might want to help you,  putting yourselves in their mindset, and then taking an outside-in look of what you’re asking of them, and why they might be reacting in a positive or a negative way.

Kaitlin Milliken: So another challenge that we hear when it comes to building a network of champions and finding your allies is “not invented here syndrome.” How can teams overcome that hostility to external ideas and new ideas?

Fiona Grandi: You get organ rejection, so to speak. And it really can de-rail innovation efforts. And some of it may be part of the culture. It may be part of just personality of the individual whose support you’re asking for. And it may be a source of pride. If they didn’t think up this brilliance, you know, why should they go out of their way to help you?

There’s two things that stand out to me that really can prevent, or at least minimize that “not invented here” issue. One is collaboration, and hosting natural places where individuals can come together and share ideas. And then down the road, there’s the second part of this, which is a shared sense of credit, and sharing that credit broadly.

To say, “This is a great thing that I’m leading in my group. But actually the idea came from a hackathon that I participated in with somebody in a completely different part of the business six months ago,” and sharing that credit, and going back to that point of collaboration is really going to minimize issues with people rejecting your innovation.

Kaitlin Milliken: So we covered a lot of ground during this conversation. My last question to you is, if you have any tips on building a network of champions, or advice that you think people should keep in mind?

Fiona Grandi: There’s a lot of different activities in the process of innovation and a lot of opportunities where you can bring outside-in perspective in small ways.

One of the things that I’m asked a lot is about how do you measure the impact of innovation. And often groups like to attribute kind of a score or a number. And instead, I would say go with the scorecard. Go with a set of metrics. But what’s even more impactful would be to get that reviewed and approved by folks in other departments and say, without even real data on the page, “What are the things that would make you feel like there’s value coming out of some innovative activity?” And get that up front.

Focus on your culture, in terms of what are the best parts and the places within your organization that might be ripe. If there are particular groups or networks that you can align with, or if there’s opportunities to step outside the guardrails in the business in certain forums, use those. Use those as a platform to launch new ideas.


Kaitlin Milliken: Understanding your colleagues across the organization — from legal to leadership to the business units — can help your team find allies, even in the most unlikely places.


You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Bill, Kendra, NB, and Fiona for sharing their insights.

For more data and takeways from our 2020 Benchmarking Innovation Impact report, check out While your on our website, you can listen to other episodes of this podcast and read our most recent case studies. If you loved this podcast, rate us and review us on iTunes. That helps other innovators find the show.

Thanks for listening and see you next week.


Special thanks to our sponsor KPMG. As a leading professional services firm, KPMG provides innovative business solutions and audit, tax, and advisory services. They’re also the sponsor of our 2020 Benchmarking Report, which provides insights and best practices on innovation based on input from over 200 innovators at big companies. The report provides key guidance on how to build a network of champions, secure budget, create the right project portfolio, and much more. Gain new perspectives on innovation, get the report at