Rare is the business leader who questions the importance of innovation not only to promote growth within their organization, but also to ensure its very survival. Corporate executives have invested significantly in innovation initiatives to support this importance. Yet a recent Accenture study found that more than half were disappointed by their innovation results and returns from their innovation investments.
Why is there such a large gap between the need to innovate and the ability of organizations to actually innovate successfully? Executives tell us that the problem is not a lack of innovative ideas, but rather an inability to transform the best of these ideas into bottom-line results.
Many organizations have responded to this innovation gap by purchasing outside companies to acquire innovations and technologies with proven results. Acquisition has its merits, but often comes with its own set of costs and hurdles. Large organizations can successfully drive innovation internally, but it must be tied to finding and empowering their internal entrepreneurs. Leveraging these “intrapreneurs” is the key to selecting, developing and executing the innovative ideas, products and technologies that generate bottom-line growth.
The process for transforming an enterprise’s maze of good ideas into bottom-line results can be achieved by following three steps:
- Identify the organization’s internal entrepreneurs;
- Empower them with a process and program to build their entrepreneurial skills under experienced mentors;
- Leverage these empowered intrapreneurs to encourage others inside the organization.
A specialized “Open Innovation” program that engages external startups is an effective way to accomplish these three steps. By leveraging startup founders’ entrepreneurial expertise to mentor and incubate intrapreneurs in a large organization, the organization creates an environment that transforms languishing ideas into tangible bottom-line results.
Finding and Attracting Entrepreneurs
In identifying intrapreneurs, corporations should look for employees with the following qualities and skills, which are the same characteristics found in effective external entrepreneurs:
- Willingness to accept risk even if it means asking for forgiveness rather than permission;
- Ability to accept failure and to pick up and move on past failure;
- A clear vision matched with a passion to overcome obstacles to achieve this vision;
- Openness to new ideas and the flexibility to change course when initial approaches prove false;
- Tenacious work ethic and willingness to do “whatever it takes to get the job done;”
- Ability to work and communicate with others.
Creative methods for finding intrapreneurs with these skills include solution contests, internal hackathons, suggestion boxes and collaborative discussion blogs.
The search for intrapreneurs should be public and open to all members of the organization. (Note: An organization should not be biased toward young employees or those who are new to the company. Often the best intrapreneurs are long-term employees with cross-functional experience and a high degree of peer respect.) A strong leader can be especially valuable. Programs like these will also naturally attract individuals who collaborate well across the organization. This can be valuable when canvassing for support of a new concept or innovation.
Once an organization’s intrapreneurs have been identified, the next step is to create an environment that allows them to collaborate, flourish and add value. The following details a method -- including a specialized Open Innovation platform -- that achieves this.
Define Challenges: To maximize the entrepreneurial skills of the group, the supporting Open Innovation program should be focused on solving and implementing solutions to specific business challenges. To accomplish this, business owners and thought leaders in the organization must define and share their most important business challenges. This allows the Open Innovation program to match challenges with potential solutions from both internal and external sources.
Create a Web Portal: A collaborative web portal allows intrapreneurs to easily identify, join and communicate with other intrapreneurs and thought leaders. The portal provides a platform for them to work together finding solutions to the organization’s business challenges. The portal provides a structured screening process where participants can publically rate and establish discussion forums on possible solutions. Discussions should be freeform and should have the ability to easily branch out to sub-topics. It also facilitates the open exchange of ideas where consensus can be found for new solution approaches.
Assemble Teams: The collaborative Open Innovation portal also allows intrapreneurs to organize into small, cohesive teams that include the necessary skill sets to evaluate and test identified solutions. In addition to the entrepreneurial skills previously identified, each team member should bring at least some of the following organizational experience to the group:
- Operations and testing;
- Business expertise and a solid understanding of the challenge that needs to be solved;
- Corporate communication;
- Technical expertise in the area of interest.
Attract Executive Support: Both the teams and the solutions to solve the business problems should have visible executive endorsement and support. This executive “air-cover” is essential for the teams to succeed and be recognized for their efforts. It also paves the way to circumvent compliance barriers during the early stages of validation, and can eventually facilitate funding.
Find and Qualify Startups: An important function for the collaborative Open Innovation portal is to provide members with the ability to find, match and qualify innovative solutions. These solutions should come from external startups as well as internal sources.
Startup solutions can be found through either a proactive discovery process or through a link to a public part of the collaborative portal. This special public site allows external organizations to submit applications for their solutions to challenges that have been approved for public posting.
When qualified solutions from either internal or external sources are found, they must be screened and evaluated by the team. In the case of an external startup solution, the opportunity must also go through an expert process that determines the company's viability, stability, and the experience of their entrepreneurs.
Test and Validate: The Open Innovation Process must also include a planning and delivery process for rapid testing and validation of desired results.
When a combined team of skilled intrapreneurs and startup founders jointly believe an innovation opportunity is a viable solution to a business challenge, the team must establish and complete a Proof–of–Concept (POC) project. The parameters of this POC project should be negotiated and agreed to by the internal team and any external startup founders.
The goal of the POC project for both internal and external groups is the early validation of solution assumptions as well as to prove expected results and returns. Borrowing from the agile development model and proven incubator process for startups, the proof–of–concept project should include:
- A set of joint objectives validating results in short sprint cycles of 3-4 months and funded with lean budgets;
- A significant commitment from the assigned internal team members
and startup participants;
- A process sequestered from normal day-to-day operations and security
requirements. In some cases, this may require an off-site venue and parallel test platform;
- Successive sprint cycles that are only approved when previous sprints have produced results.
This sprint approach for the POC brings additional benefits to the organization when external startups are involved. Running a "just-in-time" boot camp forces internal and external team members to experiment, bond and exchange skills. Including external entrepreneurs in the POC team naturally seeds the process with entrepreneurial skills and allows them to impart their experience operating in a lean and Darwinian startup process.
Seasoned entrepreneurs are able to mentor intrapreneur team members and help them build their innovation skills. When multiple POC projects are running simultaneously, teams will naturally support each other’s learning curves. The sprint format also reduces risk by setting constraints on time and budget for discovery and validation.
Creating an Innovative Culture: In addition to finding innovative solutions to business challenges and increasing bottom-line results, an Open Innovation program that focuses on external startups creates a culture of internal innovation throughout the organization.
The process creates a repetitive and ongoing model and provides incentives that keep entrepreneurial talent in-house and rewarded. If a relationship with an external startup progresses to an M&A event, the internal intrapreneurs are well-positioned to work with the startup to facilitate a smooth integration process.
About the Author: Coley Brown is the CEO and co-founder of VisionMine (www.VisionMine.com), an open innovation consulting firm and internet portal that matches corporate business and technology challenges with start innovations discovered by the firm. Coley can be reached at coleyb@VisionMine.com.