I spent 10 years of my career working on innovation and digital transformation at several large, blue-chip companies, then gradually transitioned to the startup world, until I became a partner at a corporate venture builder a few months ago.
I have seen the innovation process from both sides now, and thinking back to my days inside corporations there are a few things I wish I had known back then.
These would have saved me quite a lot of trouble at the time — and so I am sharing them here.
1/ Companies are too obsessed with competitors, and don’t think enough across other industries
As a corporate innovator, most of the time I was preoccupied with seeing what our peers were doing and trying to put what they were doing into vague concepts like early mover, fast follower, late mover. I couldn’t see beyond that.
But what if I had asked myself: how do they solve similar problems in other industries? The more diverse analogies we use, the better we solve complex and unstructured problems. David Einstein in his bestseller Range and in his must-read newsletter Range Widely talks about this.
2/ Corporates are terrible at sharing their ideas
This is something that I observed a lot: corporate executives are very protective of their ideas and hate sharing them with the rest, "just in case the department next door steals it from me and they take advantage of it".
It is the opposite of an entrepreneur, who works by telling every idea to as many people as possible
It is the opposite of an entrepreneur, who works by telling every idea to as many people as possible. Doing so can be dizzying but it always gives you angles you hadn't contemplated or dead ends already explored by others.
Sharing ideas is also something that a corporate venture builder does well, always building on a colleague's ideas. It is like a theatre jam, where someone starts an improv and you build on their story. You should never throw away the work you've done but build from there.
3/ Innovation shouldn’t be at odds with generating income
For years I have heard that innovation should be an exploratory environment in which you should not expect any return, at least not in the short term. No way! I think corporations use this mantra as an excuse to avoid taking innovation seriously. Innovation must be deeply connected to the business and should have a positive impact on the bottom line, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the horizon you are working on, but it’s a must.
4/ Corporate innovators too often fall in love with the solution and not with the problem
This one is very connected to number two. From the creators of "I don't share my ideas in case someone steals them" comes the sequel, "when I have a solution to a problem, I love it and I defend it to the death".
There is often an attachment to initial ideas at corporations that is very difficult to break.
The best solutions come organically from going round and round the problem
If I have learned anything in the seven months I have spent in the corporate venture building world, it is that the best solutions come organically from going round and round the problem. As Einstein said, "If I had one hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution."
In addition to this, companies have another problem — they love extremes. They either fall short or go too far. Corporate innovators work on proposals very close to the day-to-day that will have little impact on the company's long term or focus on horizon 8 (not yet invented...) with value propositions so aerial that it is difficult to carry them out.
5/ Innovation isn’t random and chaotic
Innovation has a bad reputation inside corporations. It’s seen as the result of a chaotic, random process that requires a great deal of effort for the "peanuts" it produces.
This could not be further from the truth. The true innovation process has little to do with chaos. I never imagined it to be so much like the scientific method of experimentation. In my day-to-day life, I find myself immersed between learning objectives, questions, hypotheses, assumptions, experiments, artefacts and their corresponding KPIs to find out if we have learned everything we should in each phase, which of course is iterative and improves on the previous one.
6/ Innovation teams are too disconnected from the business to drive results through
Innovation teams often sit — metaphorically and physically — away from the rest of the business. This disconnect, coupled with the lone-ranger syndrome, often means that no one sponsors the results of the innovation team and they are not given much credibility.
I recently read an article by Professors Cattani and Ferriani about how outsiders become game changers, which makes it clear that behind every Steve Jobs there is a Mike Markkula, a champion inside. It is crucial to look for a supporter of the innovation team's ideas who at the same time has enough credibility to be heard in the premier league.
If I had known some of these things years ago, I might have saved myself a few headaches and plotted my strategy differently.
What companies do know well is their own business. They have sector knowledge that external corporate venture builders will never have. But they need travel companions who are authentically hands-on, who give their all in the field, who share the risks and benefits of each new company. It’s time to let go of a few myths and make these partnerships more productive.