How to innovate in a corporate environment

Michael Millar

Co-founder, SmplCo

17 Jan 2023

Who says innovation is just for start-ups? Michael Millar explains how you can develop the next big thing in places where innovation may not be a priority.

Trying to drive innovation in a corporate environment is a mixed blessing.

There is (in theory) access to expertise and budget and support structures.

But what’s that coming over the hill? Oh no, it’s the Corporate Bureaucracy Monster!

It has talons made of procurement, fists toughened by legacy IT systems, many corporate silos for tails, and the blazing eyes of executive politicking.

I’ve done battle with this beast in some of the biggest firms in the world. Here are my five steps to subduing it…

1. Back yourself

Before you do anything else, take a look in the mirror and recognise you’re the one to change the world in your own little way.

It’s very easy to think successful innovation is the domain of people blessed with genius, good timing, and loads of luck.

In most cases it is nothing of the sort.

Successful innovation comes from finding a new way to solve a problem or meet a need, creating value for your customers, and improving the bottom line.

This usually comes from experience; from seeing a problem or opportunity and grabbing hold of it.

And make no mistake, if you’ve spotted that problem or opportunity, there’s no better person to latch onto it than you.

It is your experience – your immersion in your area of expertise – that has brought this opportunity to life. It is you taking your understanding of data, inefficient processes, and/or shifting marketplaces to update a product or create a whole new service.

You you you.

As such, you are the ideal person to drive innovation. So, back yourself. (And remember, if you don’t, how can you expect anyone else to take a gamble on you?)

Tiny corporate businessman sitting at desk and thinking
So, tell me about this “innovation” you speak of…

2. Build support

You can’t battle the Corporate Bureaucracy Monster all by yourself. You’ve got to get the right colleagues on your side if you are going to drive corporate innovation.

Here’s how I’d recommend you do that quickly and effectively:

  • Put together a list of core stakeholders that you’ll need to involve to obtain the buy-in and support you need. Obvious candidates for this are the product owner, your manager, the budget holder, and friendly clients/customers (for validation)
  • Once you have that shortlist, create a longer list covering everyone who could help or hinder you within your organisation. Do this by dividing them into four groups of people who would be involved in the delivery of your project:
    • Those that are / would be responsible for actions and outcomes
    • Those ultimately accountable for those outcomes
    • Those who you’ll want to consult due to their expertise or place in the hierarchy
    • The people you’ll need to keep informed along the way, so they aren’t out of the loop
  • When you know who those people are, put yourself in their shoes, asking what they want and how your idea would benefit them. This will allow you to tell a story and pitch your ideas in a way they will understand. There is simply no more powerful way to sell an idea than telling people what’s in it for them ­– both in terms of the benefits they’ll get and the risks they’ll avoid

If you take these steps early on ­– combining what’s important to your audience and what you need from them – you’ll save you a lot of time and stress later on.

Make quick, effective gains by stripping your idea back

Michael Millar

3. Prioritise and focus

Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll be pushing innovation on top of everything else you’re already working on – and you’ll be doing it with less money than you need.

This means you’ve got to make the best use of your time and resources to make rapid progress.

To get off to the best start, take the data and insight you have, workshop ideas with key stakeholders, and quickly create a basic prototype.

Doing this will allow you to make quick, effective gains by stripping your idea back and clearly focusing on a core customer journey and getting to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) fast.

You will also better engage with your stakeholders and demonstrate early progress – both crucial to keeping the right people interested and on-side.

Workshop attendees hard at work
At Smpl we love a good workshop

4. Encourage creativity in others

If you’re in a leadership position, do whatever you can to foster a culture of corporate innovation within your organisation. (If you’re not, show your leaders this article and tell them Smpl – a company founded and run by some wildly successful entrepreneurs – sent you.)

Create systems that encourage anyone to suggest new ideas. Then build the processes to facilitate quick, cheap experiments to validate those ideas (again, workshops and fast prototypes will be crucial to this).

You don’t need to spend lots of money (although wouldn’t it be nice to have something like Google X or Disney Accelerator?) I’m talking about creating spaces and forums where people can have the autonomy to:

  • act like entrepreneurs
  • connect with the support they need
  • test their theories

You’ll quickly find there’s nothing like a sense of control over destiny and connection to a purpose, to inspire colleagues to innovate.

Corporate inertia will soon be superceded by an environment where you are a disruptor, rather than the disrupted. Oh, and there’s a chance you’ll make a killing at the same time…

5. Find the right partners

There’s a very good chance you’ll need to find someone external to your organisation to bring your idea to life.

Getting the right partner is crucial. Here some key questions you should be asking yourself:

  • What track record do they have? (This doesn’t need to be in your industry, but rather in terms of navigating complex systems and finding innovative solutions )
  • Do they have the expertise across the whole design & development process? (Working between different companies/agencies can get disjointed, confusing, and stressful very quickly)
  • How do they charge? (Be wary of ‘time spent’ models. They encourage delay and high costs as firms spend as many hours as possible on your project)
  • Who exactly will own and run your project on their side? (All-too-often you will be pitched the A-team, while inexperienced staff deliver your project)
  • What are their response times? (There’s nothing worse than asking questions and being met by deafening silence for days at a time)
Good luck with your journey! If we can be of any help, let us know. We have a lot of experience of delivering corporate innovation and would be happy to share it with you.
You can email our MD Andreas or just leave us a message here and we’ll come straight back to you.

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