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Innovation is a Team Sport

Thoughts on Innovation Culture…

How can you Improve Innovation Adoption Rates in Large Enterprises?

We want to share some thoughts here for anyone in relatively large enterprises who is seeking to improve rates of adoption of innovations. This post was prompted as a colleague (Jeff Hovis) and I contemplated responding to an RFP seeking a ‘guide’ to foster ‘cultures of innovation’ within a particular stakeholder space, involving large enterprises. To be sure, fostering a culture that supports innovation is an important task. But guides alone will not lead to innovation, or even innovation cultures, particularly when created by one stakeholder with a goal of making another more receptive to change—which seemed to be the case here. Any one stakeholder in innovation (be it R&D, an enterprise, the target market…, or even all of them at the same time), can be as pro-innovation as they like but if engagement is not achieved across stakeholder groups innovation will stall.

This is because …

Innovation is a Team Sport

Efforts to drive innovations in large, highly visible enterprises require broad, structured participation encompassing technologists (to develop new ways to accomplish useful outcomes), decision authorities (business or government leaders who can allocate resource to development) and end users (who make the final decision on adoption).

Aside from engagement across these groups being generally needed, in large enterprises enormous resources may be involved, the outcome may affect large constituencies, and many of the key player may have to operate in risk-averse, unforgiving political environments. In that type of environment, no one constituency can drive innovation alone.

However obvious that may seem when stated, experience—as in the case of the RFP that prompted this post—shows that many players still overlook this point.

Making it Happen

Fostering faster development of, and higher rates of adoption for, innovations within this type of environment requires a coordinated, action focused effort that addresses several issues. In other words, the program need to go well goes beyond things like documenting best practices , creating guides, organizing training, creating innovation forums, etc.

Here are some issues to consider:

  • There must be a shared, mutually understood language for innovation – Ask ten leaders to define innovation and you will hear ten different definitions.

  • There must be early and frequent connections between technology development, end users, and decision authorities – Success in innovation often depends more on who supports the innovation than what is the actual innovation. This process is called Transition Management.[1]

  • Research programs need to be defined in terms of reducing uncertainty around technologies and practices – research should eliminate gaps in knowledge. This process is called Incubation and is a critical preparation for Transition.

  • There must be safe ‘sandboxes’ where innovations can be tested and evaluated, with real user feedback. The only data driven way to evaluate candidate innovations is with field trials; but, many trials will fail. That needs to be tolerated so that the biggest successes can thrive. And even the successes often have to Pivot in order to adapt to the realities required for adoption.[2]

  • There must be strategies in place for uncertainty-reduction and risk-management – large enterprises often must operate in a highly visible, harsh political environment. These demand strategies that move even well proven innovations forward intelligently.

To that end, effort to improve the pace of adoption of innovations within large enterprises should include the following elements:

  • Workshops and educational materials to establish a commonly understood language of innovation.

  • Organization of high-level interactions between Research, Enterprise, and User-stakeholders to provide steering-committee type oversight or guidance of innovation efforts, including developing a formal governance model for the critical Transition Management interactions.

  • Workshops, educational materials and field trials aimed at piloting safe ‘innovation sandboxes’ where candidate innovations can be screened for viability and incubated so that candidates which emerge are sufficiently mature to withstand more public scrutiny.

  • Workshops, educational materials, and in-place practices, ideally implemented around pilot programs emerging from the prior three points, for risk management that can be applied to candidate innovations.

With the preceding, at the end of the day, the innovations that move into the field will:

  • Have been well understood and supported from day one by key decision authorities who can allocate the resources needed for success.

  • Have been well vetted by careful trials in a risk-tolerant environment, so that candidates moving to development will have the greatest chances of success.

  • Will be mature enough to actually be ready for the field.

  • Will advance not just the interests of the enterprise and users, but will also allow their organizational advocates to shine within their organizations.


The point I’ve been trying to make here is that efforts to drive innovation in substantial enterprises require more than exhortation from champions, guides and handbooks, and pro-innovation cultures. As important as those are, getting innovation to actually happen in those environments requires a program that fosters engagement of all stakeholders, with a shared language, and addresses the needs to shepherd candidate innovations through the maze of organizational politics. And, it has to provide for failure-tolerant, data-driven arenas for evaluating innovations.

[1] Commercializing Discontinuous Innovations: Bridging the Gap from Discontinuous Innovation Project to Operations; Mark P. Rice, Richard Leifer, and Gina Colarelli O’Connor; IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT, VOL. 49, NO. 4, NOVEMBER 2002

[2] Pivot, How Top Entrepreneurs Adapt and Change Course to Find Ultimate Success; Remy Arteaga and Joanne Hyland, John Wiley & Son, Inc., 2014.


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