The Ex-Files: On The Front Lines of Corporate Innovation

By Scott Kirsner |  May 1, 2018

The truth about life inside corporate America? It can be hard to tell the truth about the real challenges, communication breakdowns, and political conflicts that often surround innovation.

But once someone has packed up their office, updated their LinkedIn profile, and moved on, it gets much easier to speak openly about the things that stand in the way of change inside large organizations, and some of the strategies and tactics that can help you get past the obstacles.

So we reached out to 16 people who’ve recently worked in corporate innovation, strategy, technology, and new ventures roles at major brands—Target, Nike, Disney, Whirlpool, and GE among them. We asked them about some of the biggest lessons they learned during their tenure. About some of the biggest supporters and detractors they encountered, and how they dealt with the latter. About the need for metrics and business cases to back up what you’re hoping to achieve.

A handful of the people we interviewed asked to be anonymous, since they’re currently in the market for their next job. We consented, since our main objective with this story was to collect straight talk about what it’s really like to innovate in a big company—and more of it, we believe, than anyone else has previously collected.

If You’re Fighting Against the Core Business, That’s a Losing Battle

Casey Carl was the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Target until 2017. He’s now a member of several boards.

I was the youngest executive team member in the history of Target. I had been leading strategy for the enterprise already, and as an extension coming out of that, I approached our new CEO [Brian Cornell] and said, “We need to change this position and create the innovation organization. That’s where a lot of our future growth is going to be, and our current orgaization doesn’t have the capabilities and skillset to do this on its own.”

The board and Brian, the new CEO, were supportive of it from a strategic need: “Yep, makes sense, but I don’t even know what I’m signing up for.” Further down the path, when you say, “Here’s the resourcing we’re going to need, and the type of work we intend to do,” that’s when you start to get to people’s actual feelings. … I already had a ton of credibility with the board to make the argument about why we needed this new organization—I’d led the turnaround of our digital organization. [Having responsibility for strategy] was advantageous, versus a lot of people who only run innovation. I had the strategic hat as well and could show how it tied into achieving the overall strategic goals.

The things to do at the onset to ensure a greater likelihood of success is defining what success looks like. That will be different for every organization. What is success, and how will we measure it? I thought we had great alignment on what success looked like, but playing it back now, I’m not as sure.

Part of that is metrics. The core business is $70 billion. Let’s not measure new ideas by that measuring stick. It took them a long time to get to $70 billion.

Net present value can’t be the main metric, but it could be the number of prototypes created, or how many we get past this part of the funnel. When you remove the ambiguity [about what success looks like,] you remove the permission for others to intervene. You can say, “We cleared these hurdles, and we’ll move to the next phase.”

Another learning for me is that there are things you can do to ensure greater likelihood of success. That could be through reporting relationships, or dedicated multi-year budgets. It lets you remove [innovation] work from the traditional processes. Otherwise, you’re fighting against the core business, and that’s a losing battle.

For example, one of the things I learned over time in benchmarking other organizations is that you want a rolling, three-year budget. You’re still accountable fiscally, but you’re also not on a yearly budget where you’re going up against every project that the CIO has. The work is protected, so if you have a bad quarter or two in the core business you don’t get that [reflexive response] of, “Let’s pull it back.”

One of the biggest a-has from my time at Target is that innovation has a very disciplined and defined process. Thousands have gone before us, and there are clear best practices.

Innovation also has a high failure rate. If you’re not learning and failing along the way, you’re not doing it right. I believe that more is more. When you have more stuff in the funnel, because the failure rate is so high, you’re increasing your likelihood of success.

But what makes the job so difficult is that in any public company—especially in retail right now—there’s a ton of pressure to grow.

You have a tough quarter, and you start getting a lot of pressure on anything that is too speculative or too far removed from the core, even though there might have been alignment six months prior. “We hit all the metrics of success we agreed upon, and now you’re basically moving the goal posts.” That’s what makes the job so difficult. It takes a very special CEO and board to say, “I’m going to have the foresight and intestinal fortitude to take my lumps in the near-term, because I know that if I don’t do this, the long-term opportunity costs are much greater.” That’s a special breed.

Find an Orphaned Project and Make it a Reality

This anonymous former innovation director has worked in the food, beverage, and travel industries.

A lot of newbies to innovation are obsessed with ideas and the number of ideas they generate. You should be way more worried about identifying the right problem to be solved, and getting really deep on that.

And you really have to understand the business. There’s a major trust element required to be  an innovation person if you’re in a commercial role. You really have to understand the company—how it makes money, what are the big challenges, threats—even if you don’t think they are glamorous innovation opportunities. That involves meeting tons of people in the business units and ensuring that they think of you as commercially-savvy.

You need to understand the time expectations of your leadership. It’s very important to come in and have some quick wins so that people understand that you are impact-oriented, because there is a huge threat of extinction for innovation teams. … In the consumer products business, where it takes three years to deliver a [new] beverage, you may need to start off with existing ideas that may have already died in the business for whatever reason, and understand if any of them still have legs. There can often be things that can be leveraged that already exist. My boss used to call them orphaned projects. You can take an orphaned project and made it a reality.

You’ve also got to have the humility and the desire to work with partners, like consultants, agencies, other organizations. This industry is not about do-it-yourself…but a lot of companies are so competitively-driven, they think about using agencies and consultants as a weakness.

There’s a 50 percent likelihood that another organization has already done complementary work in [an area] you’re exploring.

The term “scrappy” is really annoying to me. What it means…in innovation work is working quickly and not being really perfectionist about what you show to consumers. You can show them sketches. You can let them sketch on top of your sketch. Your PowerPoint to stakeholders doesn’t need to have 150 pages.

But often, scrappy has also been translated into cheap, no budget. It’s not about that. You do need budget to do innovation work. Innovation teams have to be invested in to deliver value. You need not just people, but budget to work with partners. If you’re going to do this in a rigorous way—gathering insights, testing and learning, prototyping—it costs money. Innovation teams that are set up without a budget that corresponds to the company’s level of commercial ambition are set up to fail.

Quick Wins are the Wrong Objective

Naomi Fried is a former Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and Vice President of Innovation and Advanced Technology at Kaiser Permanente. She’s now the CEO of Health Innovation Strategies.

I believe in small, effective innovation teams. I don’t see a lot of programs that are under-resourced. If you have a clear set of objectives, and you understand how to bring value… with a small tiger team, you can transform an organization through innovation. I don’t think innovation requires a lot of money. I’ve always built teams on a shoestring. When you’re lean and hungry, you are more careful—and you have higher impact. Sometimes programs get too big, and they lose their focus. When you have 150-plus people, you can start running things yourself that are better run by other parts of the business, and you become competitive with the business in ways that aren’t healthy.

Quick wins are the wrong objective. If you’re unlucky, you can end up with a dead program. Focusing on quick wins rather than the broader organizational objectives doesn’t make sense. I get very worried if someone is starting a program and just wants some quick wins. What is the purpose of the quick win? To buy more time? If you don’t have the sponsorship in the beginning, and folks who believe in what you are doing, you may or may not succeed with the quick win approach. As opposed to having leadership say, “We want to see what you can do, and we’ll give you sufficient time and resources.” We don’t have other functions that have to prove their value—you don’t see HR running around and saying, “Let’s hire someone quick so we can show you the value of having an HR department.” Everyone wants wins, but if quick wins come at the expense of an innovation strategy and a clear innovation objective, I’m opposed to them.

Innovation programs typically take three to five years to start yielding a lot of fruit. A year and a half in may be too soon to judge the value. Impatience, or lack of time, is a big reason programs get shut down.

Build a Business Case the MBAs Can Understand

Mike Foster was the leader for global product innovation at Dun & Bradstreet through 2015. He’s now Chief Product Officer at Third Wave Business Systems.

I go to the innovation events and incubators at these companies, where you’ve got this small team working away. If you want a prayer of working your way into the corporate budget allocation, you’ve got to have a business case: What’s the market opportunity? What are the problems in the market or with customers? What’s the value proposition? What’s the competitive landscape? You’ve got to have a good system for pulling those business cases together. It needs to be ready for senior executives to consume, in the way they want to consume.

That language hasn’t changed much in the past 25 or 30 years. The people with MBAs who run companies are used to looking at business cases as a way of evaluating opportunities. Some  have been CEOs of startups, or have worked in venture capital firms. I’m a huge fan of lean startup, and I love [Alex] Osterwalder’s business model canvas, but that’s not what they are looking for.

If you’re going to get the time of day with a C-level person in a $5 billion company, they’re going to want to see some level of speculation about the numbers—even some back-of-the-napkin numbers to get them excited. Come on! And your numbers need to be able to stand up to some abuse. That aspect of things isn’t moving as fast as the innovation community suggests that it is.

At Dun & Bradstreet, I reported up to a global leader, and she reported to the COO. We probably had 20 people involved with seeding new ideas and ideation. [At one point during my tenure there], there was going to be a board meeting focused on innovation, and the COO asked [my boss] to come in and speak to it. In a rehearsal to get ready for the board meeting, the COO asked about seven major things that the CEO had committed to Wall Street and the analysts… The message was, “The bets have been made—don’t come in and talk to them about new ideation. They want a status update on the bets that had been made.” So we threw the entire presentation [on the cutting-edge things we’d been doing] out, and crammed on a new presentation on four or five things that had been rolling along for the past year and a half that the CEO needed to report an objective update on, not the new stuff.

The big idea, for me, was getting connected to that board-level agenda.

Work Backward from the Day Your Product is Commercialized

Gagan Kanjlia is the former Head of Product and Co-Founder of the Capital One Garage. He is now Head of Product at OnDeck, a fintech startup.

The toughest thing for labs is not customer adoption, it’s organizational adoption.

You can solve for the science of customer adoption, but organizational adoption is the harder part to solve for. A lot of the failures I see have to do with that spot where the lab has commercialized something, but it needs the business unit’s resources and customer base. That’s where the failure happens. It’s not a technical failure, it’s an organizational adoption failure. The compliance folks have an allergic reaction, or the IT department doesn’t think the security is resilient enough, or the sales folks don’t know how to sell this thing. That’s why communication is really important—and it’s not one-way communication. It’s creating a dialogue about what is important to you, and tying that to the business unit or function’s problems, and what is important to them. You need to build a bridge.

Eventually there is going to be a day of reckoning, the day when your product is sewn into the fabric of the company. At that point, it’s no longer a cool, shiny toy. It’s being sold by the front lines, being operated by the operations folks. There’s a P&L with your cost and revenue. That is the day of reckoning; that is like nirvana—”my product is doing the talking.” Work backward from that day. Identify who will own the product when it grows up. You need to invest in that relationship.

I learned very quickly that you have to be uncompromising on talent. It’s a great thing to say, and hard to do. But I would rather not initiate an innovation project if I didn’t have the right team, rather than trying to wing it with people who sort of get it.

If I ever felt like there was a sense of elitism and entitlement in the lab, if that’s the perception of others at the company, you have to avoid creating that, or deconstruct it. Yes, you need to have more forward lean, and a methodology that is suited for innovation, but elitism and entitlement isn’t what the lab’s brand should be.

Understanding the Billion-Dollar Obsession

Rick Waldron was COO of Nike’s Innovation Accelerator until 2017. He’s now an executive advisor and coach.

Large companies are in the billions of dollars of revenue, and so in order to make a difference and be worth senior leadership’s time, the whole system is organized such that they look for investing in things that will have a big impact on the corporation. So if I’m a $12 billion business and I’m thinking about a new business, well, I want it to have $500 million or $1 billion in revenue potential. People don’t care about businesses that are under $1 billion.

… But it takes a lot of time to get to $1 billion, so even if something is strategically relevant, if it doesn’t have that potential, it’s hard for management to justify investing in it. They can just go back to their core business and start seeing that growth more predictably. I’ve seen even businesses with several million dollars in revenue, [that] were strategically relevant, get defunded or not funded sufficiently, because it was seen as too small.

Senior leaders hear in the press all of these stories of unicorns, where startups get a $1 billion valuation right away. But they conflate valuation with revenue. I believe they do that subconsciously. [In reality], it takes [these unicorns] a long time to get to $50 million in revenue [in] the first place. … But I think the time it takes—how long and how hard it is to get to profitable revenue and scale—isn’t something senior leaders in larger companies understand.

Another challenge is that most investing in innovation is done through this 12-month budgeting and planning cycle. So [innovation teams] live in this short-term…they’re not even given the resources they need to get to the right scale in the right time. The deck is stacked against them.

My view of what should happen is…there should be this holy triumvirate that gets sponsored by the most senior levels of the company and works together very closely. … And that would be strategy, corporate development, and an innovation function.

The strategy group helps point the innovation efforts in the right direction. What is strategically relevant to the company? Where should we start going to hunt beyond what the core business is going to do? The innovation function can go take that strategy, and using the lean innovation playbook, they can go start testing out those strategies. … They feed the information back to the strategy team, which helps refine the strategy, it helps bring customer insights to the strategy team, and they can refine it. Then with all these learnings, you can involve corporate development, so they can go and make some dramatic game-changing moves [like] acquire a company, for example. But they do that with the strategy this team has come up with collaboratively, so the company is making strategic decisions. As we see all the time, corporates have an easier time making big moves though M&A than they do in making year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter investments in new things…

Ship Products, Not Concepts

Sasha Hoffman was the Chief Operating Officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, a new product development lab that is part of Italy’s Piaggio Group, until 2018.

One of the really hard areas for a new innovation or R&D lab is managing the relationship with your parent company. They have to trust you, and that trust comes over time. With Piaggio Fast Forward, we are disrupting a 130-year-old [scooter and motorcycle manufacturer,] and telling them we want them to bet on a whole new family of products that may not generate revenue for a while. They had enough foresight to start [a lab in Boston], and they gave us a lot of breathing space. We brought together diverse people with diverse mindsets. The mothership needs to give you a set of parameters, but you also need free reign to think. If you built this within Piaggio, it wouldn’t have gotten done. Put a motorcycle designer on your team, and they would’ve given you a new kind of motorcycle.

Where I see a lot of these labs going wrong is they put out tons of concepts, but they don’t launch products. You’re putting out concept cars and new kinds of urban mobility devices—and yet I haven’t seen one of them on the street. And it took Tesla, not someone who was building lots of concept cars, to reinvent the battery system, the autopilot, and put out this totally new kind of car.

The second you actually have to pull the trigger and sell a product with your name on it, that’s where a lot of these innovation labs just stop.

If we were inside an Amazon or a Google, sure, it would’ve moved faster. I spent a lot of time politicking [with Piaggio colleagues.] It takes some massaging. It’s hard, for any of these companies that [have] been around for a long time.

What’s Motivating the Company?

This anonymous former innovation executive has worked most recently in financial services.

If you have a more entrepreneurial background and you’re leaving that world to get the job security of working in a big corporation, be careful. [Being a corporate innovator is] probably one of the least secure jobs you can have in an organization.

So often, these roles are created with the best intent. You see your competitors doing the same thing, and you’re responding to the market. But often the people creating these jobs don’t know what they’re doing.

What should you do? You need to get very clear about what your responsibilities are and what your key performance indicators are. Before you take the role, spend time going through the job description. Sit with the leaders you’ll report to. Ask them, “What does success actually look like?” The more innovative you are trying to be [with your program], the less immediate traction you’re going to see.

You also really need support from the lines of business. The CEO may be super into innovation and willing to spend a ton of money, but then there’s this big competition that gets set up with the lines of business. The innovation group can be seen as the favorite child. Usually the innovation group is the one that gets the accolades externally. The lines of business say, “We’re responsible for the revenue,” and they feel slighted. Getting line of business support is equally as important as the C-level support.

What is motivating the company to do something different about innovation is important. Are they doing this because they are afraid that they’re going to be left behind, or because they saw their competitor got a nice press release? They may not actually care about innovation, but want to have someone with the title who can go to some events.

There are absolutely positive motivations as well: “We haven’t had new products, customers are leaving us, we need to grow, our customer satisfaction score has gone down.” People internally may realize that what they’re doing isn’t working, and they want to change that. So you need to get agreement on what success looks like. You should say, “I need the assurance on dollars, people, and line of business support to be successful.” When there is real, genuine agreement—we have a problem, and we want to work toward a solution—those are much easier conversations…

Innovation Isn’t the Center of the Universe

Nancy Tennant was Chief Innovation Officer at Whirlpool Corp. through 2015. She now teaches at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame University.

Innovation is not the center of the universe in most companies. The CEO certainly wants you to run innovation, but she’s got other things going on too. In most cases, innovation moves two steps forward and one step back in most companies. You are at the center of the universe for a little bit, and then something happens, and you’re not. There’s a crisis, a new CEO comes in, the company decides to sell off a business. You have to have the right presence of mind to keep the steady state going; you have to see it as a long-term thing, and understand that there are other big priorities in companies. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still love you, but it means there are other things going on…

What can you do? Sticking your head in the sand is not a good approach. You want to be thinking about what is the next level you’re going to get to. How can you train people? How can you partner, so when you do wind up at the center of things again, you’re ready?

There are other things that happen in large organizations that aren’t innovation, and you really have to figure out how your initiative fits with these other things going on… What are the productive things you can do personally and for your team?

You have to develop a unifying view of innovation, and not idolize certain companies. You need to have enough knowledge to figure out what [approaches] work for you, rather than, “I want to be a Google, I want to be a Tesla.” You might go out to understand who’s really good at framing, discovery, ideation, and begin to put things together that make sense for you. I like to say, “Customize, don’t idolize.”

I’m an optimist. I think the pendulum always changes direction in companies. You may have one of these switchbacks for a time, but I do think it always comes back to innovation.

You Can’t Skip to the End

Ann Marie Dumais was an open innovation leader at GE until 2017. She’s now VP of Strategic Programs at First Advantage, a provider of background checks.

The very first thing that executive management wants to do is, they want to skip to the end. How many brand-new shiny objects did we produce, and how quickly? 

Those are not the first success metrics—those are the last metrics that are going to show that you have the right culture, the right people, the right process. … Those things take time to come into alignment. The first success metrics are being able to see how many groups are collaborating. Do they put pieces of paper and bureaucracy in between them? The number of pieces of paper is a great indicator of how much bureaucracy there is.

… I struggle with that word “innovation,” because it has become a four-letter word lately. I almost like the words “curiosity” and “risk-taking” more. … It’s about encouraging people to love their jobs, and raise the right questions. Those things drive a very innovative and productive culture. They create a really good soil, and what comes out of that is good output.

Passion Has to be the First Criterion

Wim Vandenhouweele was a Commercial InnoLead for Europe, Canada, and Emerging Markets at Merck until 2018.

If you talk about a global organization [like Merck], different groups have very different understandings of innovation, and senior leaders usually have something specific in their minds. Do you want to focus on your core business, or look at other strategic priorities? Do  you [want] open innovation or just internal? Do you want to go with venture capital, with startups? Make that very clear from the beginning. If you don’t explain it well, it can create confusion, dissatisfaction, or waste.

It’s important to have that clarifying discussion over time…and to keep having that discussion with the senior leaders’ direct reports, with regional presidents, and go through the different layers. You have to make it very clear what [your mission] is, and what it is not.

The network of innovators I created at Merck was 50 to 60 people, one in each country. We called them Country InnoLeads. It was a challenge to stay in touch on a regular basis with them and keep them engaged and activated.

One of the biggest errors I made when I started was asking for someone from the leadership team—someone reporting to the country’s managing director—to be the Country InnoLead. Later, I switched it, and instead, I [looked for] someone who is passionate. Passion has to be the first criterion. It made a dramatic change in the level of activity we saw in each country.

One thing we figured out was that every month, I organized a WebEx . I asked three countries to share their innovation, or how they stimulate innovation, in a 10-minute presentation. Everybody could watch live, and people could connect with them offline afterward. We taped them for the intranet, so people could watch them afterward, too. It was very simple, and it didn’t cost anything.

Another simple thing was sending a note out to people’s managing directors, to say how well the innovator was doing. People feel great when someone from headquarters sends a note. One of the people in our network was a sales representative in India. In the next innovation awards we did, he had 10 out of the 130 ideas. He just got so passionate about it.

The other challenge is securing more time for your innovators, and making their participation more formal, so it is recognized in their objectives and accomplishments. For me, the time part is more important than money—having the time to do more. We had awards where we gave money, and awards where we didn’t give money. And we didn’t see any difference. 

Because people are so busy, if the leadership team had protected them to do what they wanted to do, that would’ve been more helpful.

‘We’ll Kiss All the Frogs’

Graham Milner was Executive Vice President of Global Innovation at WD-40 through the end of 2015. He’s now the principal of GPM Consulting.

I think we are all comfortable with being comfortable. But for transformational innovation to occur, you need to achieve comfort with discomfort.

Working on incremental stuff makes sense on two levels. It’s the quick win. It allows the internal customer to see there is value to this unit. The other piece is that…innovation is a skill not unlike learning to play tennis, golf, or hit a baseball. The early practice of the quick wins allows you to refine your process, and allows the internal motor of innovation to start spinning. In that metaphor, to go from zero to Wimbledon or the US Open is difficult. So demonstrating competence builds internal confidence.

[At Team Tomorrow, the innovation group at WD-40], we spent a lot of time and effort looking for transformational innovation. There were one or two ideas that physically got done, like the Turbo Air Compact Blower System. It was a mini-blower device you could use on your workbench at home to clean up, or we had barbers using it instead of hairdryers to deal with stray hairs. But to physically make an electronic device is about as far from a can of WD-40 as you can imagine.

We never made millions of them, but we took them to customers and we were set to launch—and ultimately we didn’t. But what was interesting was a few years later, the entire Specialist line [of WD-40 products for specific applications] was launched, and the CEO said, “If we hadn’t done the blower device, we would not have had the courage to extend the brand.” The internal debate about line extension had raged for decades. But the transformational exploration allowed the company to take a step that it might not have otherwise.

What would I have done differently? I might have tried to do a better job of internally selling the role of innovation to all of the internal customers. You know, “We’re going to kiss all the frogs, and we’ll be the ones with warts on our lips, but you’ll get all the princes and princesses.” My assumption was that people would get it.

Communicate the Vision and Show the Consumer Excitement

Rachael Schwartz was Vice President of Product Management and Innovation at Keurig until 2018.

Having a great strategy and a great plan is a small part of whether the innovation is successful. At least half of the work is in generating the support and maintaining support from the leadership of the company and also from the people who have the ability to disrupt the program.

We’re entrepreneurs within a company, and the leadership in the company are our funders. You can spend your time nose-down building your company, but you also need to explain what you’re building to those funders. Communication and getting people on board is not a nuisance of the job—it is the job.

For everything we wanted to launch, I had to clearly develop a vision. Then you find a nice, concise way to communicate that vision. And you meet one-on-one with every single senior leader regularly, to understand what their motivations are, what their hesitation may be. I was frequently in eight to 10 meetings a day, every day. It was very meeting-heavy.

I learned that I was not effective personally at communicating the vision and consumer excitement to all of the leaders. When they really doubted an exciting business, we decided to show the consumer excitement. Any time you meet with consumers or do a focus group, it’s worth it to spend the extra money and time to videotape it. Then, package it up into nice short clips. That’s what they remember. They might think it’s the stupidest idea in the world, but they remember the excitement that the millennials had for it. Generally, the leadership is wealthy, liberal, older, coastal people who eat heathier, drink healthier, and exercise. So for a lot of products we were talking about, they couldn’t visualize that anybody would want those products, because they and their cohort had no interest.

It was also very important to train every single person working on the innovation team on how to effectively communicate the vision. When they’re sitting in the cafeteria and their buddies are complaining, they can stand up for it and sway people, and it doesn’t just fall to me.

The other thing I learned was how to build out innovation in stages, so that I build my own proof points for a concept. It can be hard for finance to buy into your projections for blue-sky innovation. There really aren’t good metrics to use, and you’re making huge assumptions. What I learned over time was to position it as a “What if?” What if these things fell into line, and we could build a billion-dollar business? These are the 20 assumptions, so let’s run quick tests to verify or invalidate those assumptions.

Your Job is in Danger of Being Eliminated

Christopher Chapman was a Global Creativity & Innovation Director at the Walt Disney Company until 2017. He’s now a Creative Director at PICROW and Founder of WeOverMe.

A title with innovation in it is a symptom of a problem, because innovation should permeate. Every single day, your job is in danger of being eliminated more than anybody else in your organization. Under no circumstance should you behave as though you own innovation. It has to be that you are supporting others in achieving innovation.

Make sure you are putting people first inside the organization. You have to put the employees in the organization even above the consumers, because if you’re not helping to create a culture of innovation, and helping people fulfill their potential, it’s a massive misstep.

One issue we ran into was a misconception that we were there to hold brainstorms and help people come up with ideas: “Can we do a one-hour brainstorm to solve for this massive challenge?” The way we addressed that was, we always said yes. But then we said, “Can we show you another way?” At that first engagement point, we’d show them how we use design thinking as a creative problem-solving approach. … And the one-hour brainstorm would turn into an integrated, cross-disciplinary, three-month engagement.

The most dangerous place in an organization [for innovative ideas] is middle management.

So what do you do with them? Listen to their complaints. Bring them into the fold. Go out and have lunches. Ask questions and listen; talk and give answers less. Be provocative with your questions: What are your personal and professional goals? What is frustrating at work? How can we be of service? That middle management group feels like they are not being seen and not being heard. They feel like they are pushing paper, managing time and money, not creating new things.

But in my experience, the biggest skeptics of innovation have been people who already feel that they own creativity, because it is a noun, or innovation is a core competency. These are people who have a pretty high skill level. When you can get people to open up—and say, “We respect your knowledge, and we want you to be a part of the company getting even better”—that’s when we saw a major turning point.

You need to be a self-starter, and build your tribe. Find and build a tribe of those that believe in it. When you have people saying, “We believe in it and this works,” it can help drown out the people you might not be able to shift.

Create Mutually-Beneficial Partnerships with Startups

Ace Moghimi served as the Global Head of Innovation, Digital Strategy, and Delivery at Manulife through 2017. He’s now a Venture Partner at NextGen Venture Partners and the Principal at AceMII, a consultancy.

I think there have been some relationships between corporates and startups that have benefitted the corporates, but it’s a small percentage. And I haven’t really seen many accelerators that provide these startup-corporate connections that have shown too much success.

At Manulife, I think the way we structured it, and the startup partnerships we created, were super beneficial to us. It was more about enablement and learning. You can’t always hire the right people in the artificial intelligence space. We couldn’t afford to pay an AI expert $1 million. So we leveraged the startup partnerships. We had to bring those experts in to train our team, and get our team to a point where they were more capable. And then we’d construct a mutually-beneficial collaboration to build something new together. Not stealing [the startup’s] ideas and crushing them, and not just buying their existing product.

Whenever you are trying to build a startup-corporate relationship, you should view it through the lens of, “What is mutually beneficial?” It can’t just be about learn-learn-learn, or take-take-take. You have to be sensitive to the challenges of the startup. They have a cash burn they have to manage. You can’t put them through the procurement process that takes a year. It’ll crush them. If you need to get them through some internal process, you may need to fund them through that time.

[As a new innovation group], you need to be focused on pure results—are you adding value, have you impacted the business, created new revenue? Have you worked to change the culture? What are the results of those efforts?

If you’ve been at it for three years, and you haven’t returned anything, you’re not going to last. It’s a public company. It’s all about results.