Corporate Innovation – Lessons learned 

16/10/2017

I have spent several years engaged with corporate innovation. The first part as a researcher engaged with over a dozen innovation managers at large companies who use a Design Thinking approach. The second, as a consultant assisting CEOs, product managers and innovation managers aiming to spark their innovation initiatives. Finally, for the past two years as a corporate innovation manager myself, at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, the corporate insurance arm for Allianz.

These past few years have been tougher than I would have imagined. This was exactly the experience I was looking for, but I greatly underestimated the challenge I signed up for. Corporate innovation on the ground is a whole other ball game, and I am sure glad I had the opportunity to play. These are the three biggest lessons I have learned until now:

Blue sky doesn’t (always) work

Sure, as innovators we want to explore. We want to look for completely different products, opportunities and business models. That’s what we were told by HR and who ever hired us. Reality is, although it sounds very exciting and some top managers might SAY they’d like you to do some of this, even if people have the interest, nobody really has the time for it and you can’t just build stuff on your own (even if you can, that doesn’t work either). Finding the sweet spot between something “radical” (let’s sell cyrpto instead of insurance) and the usual incremental (let’s build an app) is key. Your internal audience needs to understand what you are talking about just enough for them to be interested. They need to be interested enough for them to give you their time. They need to give you their time in order for other parts of the organization to think this might be worth pursuing.

Not easy to start with the customer needs

In Design Thinking we live and die by the motto, start with Empathy and the rest will follow. I am still a big believer in this approach to innovation and have used it all throughout my career, but following five clear steps in the exact order just isn’t realistic. As usual and as much as it pains me to say it, the place to start is the solution. You can rally people around a solution, even if it changes later, but you can’t rally people around defining the problem. Having an interesting solution to start with, that makes sense to most people and is complex enough to require some exploration, works like a charm. In my past project, once I had obtained the backing and funds to develop a solution, then I set out to empathize with my customers. Through numerous interviews, I realized my customer was not only external, but also internal. I learned that the fuzzy needs expressed by the top manager of a client firm are actually better understood once I spoke to the people doing the work on the ground. Same thing happened with my internal customers. Testing the early wire frames of a solution internally sparked interest among my colleagues and later surprised them to see their opinions had been taken into account in a following iteration. This activity created internal buy-in and excitement, even before the solution was finished. 

Under promise and over deliver

We generally start these jobs with big plans and great expectations. As innovators, we tend to see the opportunities rather than the challenges. However, it is important to realize that many before have failed where we are venturing and that just by coming around with funny activities and colorful sticky notes will not make much of a difference in itself. Be honest, be brutally honest. When you don’t know, you don’t know… but you’ll figure it out. Will it work? God knows, but we will learn and this will help us move forward. Is this a waste of time? Most likely, but it depends on how you define time waste. Having a no bullshit -but still keep a high energy and a positive- outlook, will be appreciated even by the most cynical of your colleagues. We can only ever move the needle with the support of our colleagues. Nothing will kill that support faster than disillusion.

Several years ago, one of the people I interviewed for my doctoral research told me: “Look Alan, the truth is that as an innovator you are always at the borderline between being promoted or being fired. Not everyone can or wants to live like this. Even those of us who do, eventually come to a point in life where we can no longer take that risk.”

I’ve been working ever since that conversation on setting up my life in a way where I can always take that risk if I chose to. If you plan on going down this path, I can only suggest you do so too.

by Alan Cabello

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