The Secret of Corporate Innovation Is…

By Scott Kirsner |  July 19, 2016

There is no secret of corporate innovation. Every company is different. Even the same company under different management regimes, or in different economic conditions, is different.

Forget about different regulatory dynamics, fast-growing new rivals, technological shifts, or sudden changes in customer behaviors.

But while there is no single secret to corporate innovation, we believe that there are lots of practical approaches that can pay off — whatever the factors affecting your specific company.

Here are seven things we see having a big impact inside large organizations, and seven things that set you up for failure.

Try To:

  1. Let employees who are responsible for developing new ideas talk to customers sooner, rather than later. Whether you call it lean startup, design thinking, or co-creation, just let your people put a prototype in front of customers to get a sense for whether it does anything the customer is willing to pay for.
  2. Use that customer data to inform what receives more investment, rather than relying on the decision of an “innovation committee,” or worse, a single executive who has a single opinion about where the business is going.
  3. Get business unit leaders to define areas where they could use an assist, perhaps by spelling out a “challenge” that they know exists, but don’t necessarily have the resources or expertise to address. Put those challenges either to employees, or to the outside world (including inventors, startups, academics), along with rewards for coming up with a constructive solution.
  4. Create a network of “innovation champions” around the company, rather than keeping the innovation function centralized and small. Define a clear role for these champions: they may be used to run idea-generation workshops; train colleagues on a specific approach; or work with customers to collaboratively develop ideas that address a specific need. Ideally, serving as an innovation champion becomes seen as a path toward recognition and promotion within the organization.
  5. Bring in new talent and create a “sub-culture” that is different from the dominant corporate culture. This group is often viewed as the fastest way to get things done in the company, and assembles an interesting portfolio of projects from around the company (though there is the danger that they become viewed as the “cool kids” who don’t really understand the customer or “the way things are done around here.”)
  6. Provide encouragement, support, and resources for the kinds of innovation that generate major returns by making the business run more efficiently, keeping customers happy, or repackaging an existing product to address a totally different market. Is that still innovation? Sure is. (In other words, don’t get obsessed with iPhone-style innovation, where you’re only trying to develop a game-changing product or service—although that’s always nice.)
  7. The best CEOs and senior executives do more than just create a new innovation group or initiative; they ensure that there is a process for taking the best ideas that come out of it and handing them over to the business unit for commercialization and scale-up. This may be the biggest challenge of corporate innovation: getting ideas out of the incubator and into the world, and avoiding the “not invented here” syndrome.


  1. Solicit thousands of ideas from employees, with no good way to sort or filter them. Too many companies treat crowdsourced ideas like patents — more must be better — but the result is an employee community that feels disengaged.
  2. Forget to supply the time or resources necessary to actually implement the winning ideas from your innovation competitions or innovation awards.
  3. Innovate only in areas that don’t threaten to upend existing business models, relationships with business partners, or executives’ authority. Let startups innovate in those areas (then complain when those startups attain higher market caps than your company.)
  4. Put someone in charge of innovation because you have nothing else for them to do, or because they need one more year of service before they can qualify for the super-cushy retirement benefits.
  5. Let the highest priority projects become things that CEO wants to mention in the next earnings call, rather than things the customers actually want, or which will save the company major bucks.
  6. Give the innovation group or new ventures team the same metrics as other business units, like revenue, ROI, or customer loyalty — and don’t give them sufficient time to show they can move the needle on any of those metrics.
  7. Buy some exercise balls, standing desks, and a foosball table to create an innovation lab, collaboration space, or ideation zone, but let it sit empty most of the time except when certain “creative” workshops or meetings are scheduled.

There are plenty more things worth avoiding — and experimenting with. Much of what we do at InnoLead is expose our members to the highest-potential ideas, approaches, tools, and strategies, whether that’s online, on our regular conference calls, or at our in-person gatherings.

Did we miss some things that you have leveraged effectively (or have been burned by)? Drop us a note at… or post a comment below.