Setting Up the Innovation ‘Shop’: Ex-Starbucks VP Shares Her Advice


For me, getting started was the hardest part of responding to the ambiguous instruction to “set up a disruptive innovation team.” I’d been an innovator for years at both Darden Restaurants and Starbucks, and I was comfortable with ambiguity.

Rachel Antalek, Contributing Columnist; Former VP/Concept Innovation, Starbucks

But when I was tapped to become the VP of Concept Innovation at Starbucks, in 2013, the context was different. I’d never created an innovation team from scratch, and we had no internal experience with a team dedicated to disruptive innovation.

I read countless articles, written by academics and consultants. I found little that had been written by corporate innovation veterans. (This was a few years before InnoLead launched.) Here’s the advice I wish I’d received then, organized by “the why,” “the what,” and “the how”:

The Why:

An initial step is defining what kind of innovation you will pursue. For me, it meant answering the question, why disruptive innovation, and what did we mean by that? This was one of the most challenging questions. We had no formal definitions of innovation in the company. We tackled it two ways.

  • What it isn’t: Disruptive innovation to us meant being clear that we weren’t near-term. If a solution emerged that looked like a quick win, we would attempt to hand it off to another team. And it meant we weren’t incremental, meaning we weren’t looking for slight improvements or optimization of current products or experiences.
  • What it is: We wanted to look 5+ years into the future and design the solutions that the business would need at that point. Our work would be holistic, meaning that every facet of our business was in play. And lastly, we wanted to be able to work with a blank sheet of paper, asking, “how would we do this today if we were starting from scratch?”

The What:

  • Engage your stakeholders before you do anything else. For my team at Starbucks, this was a four-fold approach:
    • Interview your senior leaders. What growth gaps remain in the long-term strategic plan? What keeps them up at night? How do they define disruptive innovation? What ideas do they have for needed innovation? (Don’t be surprised if these answers relate to today’s burning needs, not tomorrow’s disruptions.) Who in their organization do they recommend you collaborate with?
    • Get inside your customers‘ heads and hearts. Get smart on every piece of consumer data you have — quantitative, qualitative, and don’t forget the non-traditional. In our case, as retailers, this meant lots of in-depth observation.
    • Get inside your front-line employees’ heads and hearts. For us, this was our baristas and store managers. They know the customer better than anyone else.
    • Map your internal innovation ecosystem. Understand what other activities are happening within the company, where, and what their goals are.
  • Move quickly to a strategic framework that zeroes in on opportunity areas. Use this framework to align the organization around expectations, and to tee up the right performance metrics for innovation. Get clear with your leaders that breakthrough innovation requires unconventional KPIs — which is a separate article in and of itself. But make sure your leaders know that number of experiments conducted and key learnings shared with the organization are likely to be important, especially as you are building out a pipeline of innovation.
  • Get the team in place. For disruption, bigger is not better.Small, nimble, diverse, simultaneously creative and analytical are hallmarks of the Starbucks team. They’re insatiably curious. Roles you can’t live without: storytellers, at least one financial wiz, one ethnographer, the “liaison” to the rest of your internal innovation ecosystem, and one devil’s advocate. (The devil’s advocate role is important, as calling potential solutions into question forces the team to both strengthen the idea and have a clear narrative for naysayers.) To start, we built the team from internal veterans. After a few months it became clear what gaps we had as a team, and those gaps were filled both internally and externally. We also filled gaps on a time-limited basis (i.e. we rented expertise, both internal and external.) This is an incredibly cost-efficient way of getting the expertise you need. For us, internal hires made sense, as we had great internal talent to choose from and they understood our brand.  External hires bring a fresh perspective, but the learning curve to understand the brand is much higher. And in my opinion, the brand is the sole constraint in disruptive innovation. You simply can’t launch things that contradict it or don’t align with it.

The How:

  • Think like a start-up, no matter how big your company. Don’t demand big budgets. Let the potential value of your innovations prove themselves worthy of further investment. Think of creative ways to resource your team – a lean, dedicated team supplemented with rotational assignments, external contractors, and agencies.
  • Manage your executive sponsor. He or she is there to provide air cover, assist in securing resources, and help communicate your message as needed to his or her peers. Set him or her up for success by ensuring your narrative and needs are current and succinct. For me, this meant keeping a current email of one-liners in my boss’s inbox and often ghost-writing the emails I needed him to send. Innovation Strategist Bill O’Connor at Autodesk talks about IBNU (Interesting But Not Useful). It’s easy for a sponsor to get excited about the interesting part of the work, but that isn’t always what his or her peers need to hear.
  • Resist the urge to have a single process, and keep your front-end process light. By this I mean, change it up — daily if you have to. One of our early ideas came from a mash-up of inspiration (cool equipment from another industry), combined with frame-by-frame video observation of our customers and employees making a beverage, combined with inventing an algorithm for a sensory experience. Breakthrough innovations are unique, and you’ll need to flex the process to fit the concept and move quickly to testable prototypes. One thing is mandatory amidst all that flexing: don’t lose sight of eventual implementation.  Understanding potential constraints makes things more challenging, but also strengthens your concept and brings it to market faster. For example, ask yourself how you’ll sell the innovation into your CFO or COO, and what questions they will want answered. These questions are great challenges that a disruptive innovation team can creatively address.
  • Find one or more quick wins that you can double down on early in your team’s inception, and bring them to market quickly. Initially, our team had planned to hand these “quick win” concepts off to other teams in the company, but often they couldn’t adjust their priorities quickly enough to test them, or weren’t resourced to execute on them. When we pivoted and brought our ideas quickly into the test phase ourselves, we gained much needed momentum and internal support for our efforts. The learning was that some disruptions can be quickly executed. Once we proved there was “something there,” other teams in the company became more interested in dedicating resources to it. That approach led to better partnerships down the road when we tried to hand something over.

And my last bit of innovation start-up advice: get ready for the most intense experience of your career. As the leader, you have to coach your team to do the hardest work of their careers, help your organization understand a new competency with ambiguous outcomes (at least at the beginning), and protect your team from the corporate politics that impact everything — including innovation. It’s some of the most intellectually challenging work I’ve done, but the reward is incredible professional growth, and for me, a whole lot of fun.

Rachel Antalek is formerly the Vice President of Concept Innovation at Starbucks. Since 2017, she has served as the Chief Innovation Strategist at Antalek | Strategic Innovation Partners.