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As we ponder on corporate innovation, our minds often dart to the latest technologies, inventive solutions, or groundbreaking business models. While these components have their place, my 25-year journey, dotted with experiences from hundreds of innovation teams, has shown me a deeper truth: people form the core of corporate innovation. It is the individuals in an organization, their mental frameworks, and their team dynamics that truly drive innovation.
People-First Innovation: More Than Just Ideas and Tech
Innovation goes beyond simply developing new ideas or adopting the latest technologies. It’s about weaving the ethos of innovation into the fabric of our organizations. This means aligning innovation with our deeply-held values, principles, and strategic ambitions. It calls for a consistent commitment to continuous evolution, growth, and improvement.
A people-first approach stands at the heart of this innovation-friendly environment. This entails fostering a culture where creativity is celebrated, risk-taking is seen as courage, and learning from one’s actions is the norm. It requires an environment that champions psychological safety, a space where everyone feels comfortable voicing their ideas, taking calculated risks, and learning from their experiences, whether successful or not. In this environment, innovation is demystified and becomes a natural part of our day-to-day operations.
Leadership: Shaping a People-First Culture
Leaders play a pivotal role in molding a people-first culture. They have the responsibility to set the tone for an environment that cultivates innovation. This involves promoting open and respectful dialogue, appreciating the value of diverse viewpoints, and fostering collaborative and effective teamwork.
The challenge for leaders lies in harmonizing their attention between immediate operational tasks and the nurturing of this culture. It is common for leaders to become absorbed in the pressing tasks of today, inadvertently sidelining the equally important task of shaping tomorrow’s culture. To genuinely embrace a people-first approach, leaders need to prioritize building a supportive, innovation-friendly environment.
People: The Heart of Innovation
People are the driving force behind innovation. They generate the ideas, share them, evaluate them, and refine them into tangible, impactful outcomes. You can have the most brilliant minds in your organization, but without the conducive team dynamics to harness that intelligence, the innovation potential remains dormant.
The Innovation Ecosystem: A Collaborative Endeavor
Corporate innovation isn’t an isolated phenomenon confined within the walls of a company. It reaches out to external stakeholders – customers, partners, and even competitors. Innovation in today’s world is a collaborative endeavor, often taking place within intricate networks or ecosystems.
These ecosystems act as fertile grounds for the cross-pollination of diverse perspectives, varied knowledge bases, and a broad range of skills. This melting pot leads to more comprehensive and holistic solutions to complex problems. The interactions and collaborations within this ecosystem are the engines of innovation, highlighting the paramount importance of people and their relationships.
The Way Forward: Customizing Your Innovation Journey
Every organization is distinct, each with its unique set of values, principles, and strategic goals. Therefore, an approach to corporate innovation should be individually tailored to resonate with these unique characteristics.
In my experience, a people-first approach really works. It can be tough because it’s different from what most companies have been doing for years. But by putting people at the center and creating a supportive environment, companies can reach their full potential for innovation. Yes, it takes effort, but the results are worth it.
Remember, this is just one perspective in the vast and dynamic field of corporate innovation. It would be great to hear your thoughts on this people-first approach and your take on other key elements for successful corporate innovation.
The images in my original LinkedIn post give you a further idea of my perspectives on corporate innovation. Get in touch if you want to discuss ideas or learn together!
Image Credit: Pexels
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As businesses continue to face unprecedented change and uncertainty, innovation is no longer optional – it’s a must-have for companies looking to survive and thrive. However, finding and developing the right people to drive corporate innovation can be challenging.
In this newsletter, we’ll explore five key ideas for hiring and developing individuals capable of leading corporate transformation and innovation forward, in a world where staying ahead of the curve is essential.
Future Potential vs. Past Competencies:
In the past, companies often hired innovators based on past competencies and results. However, the future of hiring will shift towards potential as a key criterion. Past success in other organizations is no guarantee of success in your own, and companies must adapt their hiring practices to focus on individuals who have shown a proven potential for constant learning, growth, and adaptability. Look for people who are capable of dealing well with ambiguity, adapting quickly to changing circumstances, and who possess the potential to succeed in your organization.
Knowing the Direction of Adaptation:
Organizations and talent alike must know the direction in which they need to adapt. However, it can be challenging to maintain an overview of the internal and external factors and trends impacting innovation efforts and capabilities. To tackle this issue, companies must experiment and develop ways to gauge and maintain an overview and/or direction.
For companies with a strong tradition of relying solely on the knowledge of internal R&D experts, it may require broader tracking of emerging trends, as well as reaching beyond R&D to other parts of the company for ideas on other ways to innovate. Consider all the areas where innovation can occur, including in business models, channels, and customer engagement, to name a few.
The Importance of Community Building:
Innovation is increasingly happening in ecosystems and communities, both internally and externally. Future innovation leaders must be able to create shared purpose, values, and rules of engagement to foster innovation within these communities. To build a successful community, strong networking and communication skills, as well as the ability to inspire people, are essential.
Companies should foster a culture of collaboration, encourage participation from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and recognize and reward innovation efforts.
Creating the Right Conditions and Frameworks:
To make innovation work in big companies, it’s essential to create the right conditions and frameworks. This means allowing talent to experiment and explore new ideas freely, but also providing the resources, time, and support needed to make innovation efforts successful. Companies must be prepared to take risks and try new approaches, and foster a culture that encourages diversity of thought and collaboration. In addition, creating an inclusive culture that values diversity and recognizes the importance of different types of intelligence can also be beneficial for driving innovation forward.
The Importance of Multiple Intelligences:
Innovation requires a diverse range of skills, not just technical or product expertise. Future innovators must have a broad range of skills and experiences, including creativity, customer-centric thinking, and collaboration skills. Companies should consider different types of intelligence when hiring and developing innovation talent, such as emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and cultural intelligence. By valuing multiple intelligences and creating a culture that encourages diverse perspectives, companies can ensure they have the talent they need to drive innovation forward.
As the business landscape continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, innovation will be the key to survival for many companies. However, innovation is only possible with the right people in place. By shifting the focus from past competencies to future potential, tracking emerging trends and adapting accordingly, building strong communities, creating the right frameworks, and considering multiple types of intelligence, companies can hire and develop the right people for the job. Hiring full teams can also help foster innovation and bring about change faster.
By keeping these ideas in mind, companies can ensure that they have the talent they need to thrive in today’s fast-paced business environment.
Image Credit: Pixabay
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Thus, discipline plays a huge role in innovation. In fact, I’d argue that discipline is one of the least spoken about, yet most important factors determining whether individuals and organizations succeed at creating innovations.
So, in this article, we’ll dive deeper into the topic and discuss the role discipline plays in innovation to hopefully help you and your organization do a better job at it.
What is discipline?
As a term, discipline is commonly used to just refer to being strong-willed enough to put in a lot of hard work. In other words, self-discipline.
However, if we look at a dictionary, there are a few distinct but connected uses for the word. One refers to it as a branch of science, skill or type of work, another as the practice of regulating the behavior of people in a system, and the third as a synonym for punishing people for undesirable behavior in that system.
Well, innovation is certainly a discipline in the first meaning of the word, but it’s also one that takes a lot of discipline to succeed at, in the second meaning of the word.
“Innovation is a discipline that takes a lot of discipline to succeed at.”
Let’s dive a bit deeper on that second meaning for the word. For our purposes, we can further divide that it into two categories:
There’s obviously a lot these have in common, but for an organization to succeed at innovation, you need both.
In a nutshell, you need self-disciplined individual willing to put their head down and persist. But you also need organizational discipline to focus on what matters, and to create the incentive structures needed to reinforce all of that.
Why is discipline so important for innovation?
So, with that covered, we can dive deeper into why discipline is so important for innovation and how that happens in practice.
We’ll next cover each of the main points briefly.
It takes hard work, persistence, and focus to create an innovation
Because our software is centerer around ideas, we often have to explain that while every innovation starts from an idea, an idea is maybe 1% of the way there towards a real innovation. It still needs development, refinement, implementation, scaling, and so on.
Going through that whole process takes a lot of hard work for pretty much every idea, even if the idea might seem trivial at first. The fact is that by the time you get an idea, hundreds, thousands or maybe even millions of people have probably had the same idea before. Most have just never bothered to implement it, or at least haven’t succeeded at it.
“Every innovator will face plenty of challenges on the way, and there will be plenty of times when things look dire, and you could give up.”
Every innovator will face plenty of challenges on the way, and there will be plenty of times when things look dire, and you could give up. Most do. But to succeed, you need to persevere and persist through these hardships.
To do that, you’re going to need a lot of discipline to avoid potential distractions, keep your head down and focus on what matter.
Trust the process and keep going
If you’ve ever been following a challenging fitness program, you know the feeling when it looks like you’re working your butt off and not making any progress.
The weights feel even heavier than they did the last time. That’s because you’ve been accumulating stress on your body, and it hasn’t yet had the opportunity to respond. Once you get some rest and recover from that stress caused by the exercise, the body will react to the stress and make you stronger.
Well, the journey is the same with innovation: facing those stressors will feel challenging, but if you don’t give up, that’s what will make both you and the innovation better.
To keep using the same metaphor, if you’d like to run a 3-hour marathon, your fitness program will obviously look very different from if you instead wanted to squat 500 pounds. Similarly, if your strategy calls for incremental innovation, your innovation processes will look very different from those aiming for disruptive innovation, but more on that here.
Regardless, the key in each of these situations is to just trust the process and keep going. Even when things don’t look great. The challenges you face will shape your innovation for the better, and the results will follow – or you’ll run out of money. Regardless, you just need the discipline to persist and stay on track.
While following the process is what will eventually get you there, you of course need to make sure you’re on the right path in the first place, and that is where disciplined thinking comes into play.
It’s easy to fool yourself without disciplined thinking
Our brain has a natural tendency to take mental shortcuts. We have an ability to recognize patterns and use those to make quick decisions efficiently and thus save energy. In most everyday situations, that ability is obviously very beneficial.
However, with innovation, this is often problematic. It’s these mental shortcuts that lead to many of the root causes behind issues that prevent organizations from innovating. This is perhaps easiest captured in common sayings like “This is how we’ve always done it” and “There’s no way that could work”.
“Our brain has a natural tendency to take mental shortcuts, which is the root cause behind many obstacles for innovation. Disciplined thinking is how you combat that.”
What’s more, if you’re an optimistic person, as most people working on innovation usually are, it’s easy to fool yourself to think that you have created something valuable even when you really haven’t. We often prematurely fall in love with that solution, instead of the problem.
Remaining highly analytical and rational in your decision-making while still being creative and aspirational is a tough combination for any person, or even for a team, to have.
Achieving that balance takes a lot of disciplined thinking. You need to stay grounded in reality, be willing to question yourself, and go back to first principleswhile still relentlessly moving forward. It’s a mindset anyone can learn, but that requires constant discipline to maintain.
Most organizations lack discipline
However, even if you are a good innovator, and have a great team that ticks all the boxes we’ve talked about above, it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to succeed.
One of the big barriers for that is the lack of organizational discipline. This is common for both startups and large organizations alike.
The idea is simple to understand. Just like an individual must remain focused to become great at something, so does an organization.
You need to make tough choices to have a clear strategy. That means saying no to a lot of things, so that you can focus on the things that will truly make a difference.
Sometimes you might have to keep investing in these truly strategically important areas, even if there’s no quantifiable ROI in the near term. Again, at the same time, the organization needs the discipline to not think about sunk costs and ruthlessly kill innovation projects that have proven to not be able to live up to their potential to free up resources for the ones that have the best odds of success.
That might sound like a paradoxical combination, and to a certain extent, it is. But that’s what makes it interesting.
On the execution side, you need a lot of discipline to have clear roles and set clear goals so that people have the prerequisites for succeeding, but also leave innovators with enough freedom to explore the best way to reach those goals. Again, that is a difficult combination to achieve. It requires a lot of discipline at all levels of the organization.
In our experience, most organizations just aren’t there yet, even if many individuals within the organization would be, and that is a big barrier for innovation.
As a result, corporate innovators often end up burning out or losing their motivation just trying to navigate the maze of organizational hierarchy for one permission and approval after another before they even get to start working on an innovation. That is a clear sign of an organization that isn’t disciplined – or alternatively has chosen to not innovate.
Discipline in practice
We’ve covered a lot of ground, and most of that has been pretty abstract, so before we wrap up, I’ll share a more practical example with you.
It’s a cliché to use Steve Jobs and Apple as an example for innovation, so I don’t usually like to do that. However, for this specific topic, I think it’s the perfect illustration because people usually see Jobs as this creative visionary and the ultimate ideas guy who couldn’t care less about processes or discipline.
But in fact, the first thing he did when coming back to Apple in 1997 wasn’t to come up with cool new products. It was to introduce a ton of discipline in everything they did and ruthlessly cut back on anything that didn’t truly help them innovate and create better products going forward.
Jim Collins does a great job summarizing some of the other actions in his book Great by Choice:
“They cut perks, stopped funding the corporate sabbatical program, improved operating efficiency, lowered overall cost structure, and got people focused on the intense ‘work all day and all of the night’ ethos that’d characterized Apple in its early years. Overhead costs fell. The cash-to-current-liabilities doubled, and then tripled.”
That provided Apple with the financial stability needed to invest in innovation and allowed them to focus their leadership and top talent purely on creating new innovations that ended up shaping the future of the company.
Also, from the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs (which I highly recommend), it becomes obvious how diligent and disciplined Jobs and the rest of the team at Apple were in perfecting every little detail of their products, processes, and even the look of their stores (sometimes to a fault).
To conclude, it takes a lot of discipline to succeed at innovation. That discipline is at least as important as the creativity we usually associate with the term innovation. And, because it’s so underrated, I’d argue it’s the part most of us need to focus on.
After all, it is that disciplined execution of an idea that usually makes the difference between those that succeed and fail.
Thomas Edison did a great job in summarizing discipline when asked about his failed attempts at a lightbulb:
“I have not failed. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
Discipline is, without a doubt, about putting in the work, but there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s also about staying focused and grounded in reality, both of which are well displayed in that quote.
“Being disciplined, both as an individual as well as an organization can be very challenging. The good thing is that it is a muscle that you can develop.”
Even if it might not be immediately obvious, lack of discipline either as an individual or as an organization, is the root cause behind a significant portion of challenges organizations face when trying to innovate.
To be frank, being disciplined, both as an individual as well as an organization, for extended periods of time can be very challenging. The good thing is that it is, figuratively speaking, a muscle that you can develop. Most would-be innovators and leaders just aren’t quite there yet.
If you recognize yourself or your organization from this article, there’s no need to hide that – and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all been there. Each of us has areas in our life where we lack discipline, or at the very least, times when we’ve failed to keep that up.
In fact, as an individual or organization, you need to be honest and admit that this is a problem for you. Once you do, you can take steps to address that, and you’ll be much closer to becoming a successful innovator.
Given that innovation is responsible for roughly 85% of economic growth, it’s without a doubt a pretty big deal for the success of both individual organizations, as well as for the society at large.
However, to achieve the level of impact that many are looking for from innovation, you can’t simply “create something new”, and then just hope the results will come. You will need to commit to systematically pursuing those results by scaling viable ideas into products or businesses that create value – at scale.
That is of course easier said than done. If you think it’s hard to come up with innovations, just try scaling one up. In this article, we’ll explore the topic in more detail and provide you with actionable tips on how to actually scale an innovation.
To begin, every innovation starts from a rough idea or concept. Often you may have a specific goal in mind, or a problem to be solved, but sometimes it can just be a cool idea that you think could really make an impact. From there, you first need to validate that the idea makes sense, and then build a product or a service that meets a real need in the market.
With these steps taken care of, the next part is to scale the innovation. At this point, we have all the pieces in place to create value, but we haven’t yet unlocked that value for the vast majority of the available market.
So, as you may see from the chart above, scaling is the part where most of the value creation and impact comes from. With that said, we can define scaling an innovation as the process of expanding the presence and the use of the innovation to be as widespread as possible to maximize that impact.
Scaling innovation is the process of expanding the presence and the use of the innovation to be as widespread as possible to maximize the impact the innovation can have.
While on paper that sounds straightforward enough, it’s extremely important to first clarify the vision of what successful scaling looks like for your innovation, and what metrics you will use to measure your success here. For some, it might just be revenue or profit, for others it could be the number of customers or users, the impact you’ve delivered, and so on.
Most of these metrics are of course related, but when you start with the end in mind and gradually work backwards from there, you are much more likely to succeed because everyone in the organization will know what it actually is that you’re aiming for.
With that goal in mind, you can start narrowing in on the methods required to get there, which is what we’ll be focusing on next.
Dimensions of scaling an innovation
Traditionally, scaling innovation is seen as a matter of advancing the adoption, or the diffusion, of innovation. This is best visualized with a chart depicting the adoption curve, which you’ll find below.
The idea is that to scale an innovation, you need to cross that chasm and go from a few early adopters to the mainstream market where the volumes are significantly higher.
While that is certainly true, we can dig a bit deeper to understand scaling in a more nuanced, and more practical, way.
First, scaling up is about creating the preconditions for scaling effectively.
Before we start talking about scaling up, we’ll assume that the basic prerequisites for scaling are in place, namely that there’s a clear vision and a product-market fit for your innovation, and that the market potential is large enough for there to be something to scale to, even if the market isn’t there today.
Assuming those prerequisites are there, you need to ensure that:
you can produce enough of the innovation to scale
you can do that efficiently enough to be financially and operationally viable
For some products, such as software and other immaterial goods, that first part is pretty straightforward. For others, such as most complex manufactured goods, even the first one will be a real challenge.
Having said that, the second part of being efficient enough will prove to be a challenge for virtually every innovation. Even for a software product, acquiring, serving, and retaining customers profitably at scale is often more difficult than people realize. For other, fundamentally less scalable goods and services, this is often excruciating.
In addition to these two more practical aspects, there’s a third and more ambiguous component to scaling up, and that is the social and institutional adoption of the innovation.
How well you scale up affects how large of a scale you can ultimately reach.
For example, with an innovation as mundane as the modern umbrella, men who used it were initially ridiculed. So, before the umbrella could really take off as an innovation, societal norms needed to change. In other cases, there may be regulatory hurdles or other institutional considerations that might need to be addressed before an innovation can ultimately scale.
Regardless of the specifics, scaling up is necessary for every innovation that wants to reach significant scale.
However, what many people don’t pay enough attention to is that how well you scale up affects how large of a scale you can ultimately reach. If you can’t produce the goods at volume, and at low enough of a price while still being profitable at a unit economics level, there’s an obvious limit to your potential to scale.
Scaling out is what most people think of when it comes to scaling an innovation. It’s the geographical or demographical expansion of the innovation to a larger audience.
In its simplest form, scaling out simply means getting a wider market share and audience for the innovation within an existing market. As we covered earlier, this typically means moving from those early adopter market segments towards the mainstream.
Scaling out is what most people think of when it comes to scaling innovation as it’s where you expand the innovation to a larger audience.
However, it doesn’t have to be limited to just that. Sometimes the same products or services can be sold and used in other geographical areas, or even in other industries or entirely different use cases, both of which unlock new markets and additional demand, and thus lead to a larger impact for the innovation. A well-known example of this is Tesla using their experience and innovations in electric car batteries to expand to stationary energy storage.
Regardless of which path you choose, often these efforts to scale out to new segments or industries do require additional work to adapt the innovation or its positioning to the differing characteristics of these new segments, markets, and audiences.
Scaling out to new market segments can increase complexity a lot, so be mindful of the operational implications of your strategic decisions here.
This naturally adds complexity, which makes the scaling up part we covered earlier more challenging. So, be mindful of how you scale out and what the operational implications of your strategic decisions here will be.
The third, and the least well-known method for scaling innovation is scaling deep. This essentially means that you unlock more impact for your innovation by expanding and maximizing the use of it, typically for the people who already have access to it.
This usually requires you to either change people’s behavior to increase usage, or alternatively come up with innovative means for improving the utilization rate by enabling more people to make use of the same assets. Scaling deep is partly a matter of culture and mindset, and partly a more practical matter of having the right components in place for enabling and encouraging active use of the innovation.
A classic, albeit somewhat controversial example of the first type would be social media algorithms. They are designed to provide users with engaging content to keep them entertained and thus stay in the service for longer, which leads to more revenue from the same number of users.
An example of the second type would be cloud computing. By adding network, virtualization, and software layers on top of the computing hardware, cloud providers can get more use out of the same hardware, which unlocks value for both the service provider and the customers.
This is how Amazon not just significantly reduced costs in one of their major cost centers, IT infrastructure, but actually turned that into Amazon Web Services (AWS), an additional growth business that now accounts for the majority of the profits for the entire organization.
Scaling deep is about unlocking more impact for your innovation by expanding and maximizing the use of it. This can help reduce the need to scale up or out, or alternatively maximize the impact from doing so.
Scaling Deep can reduce the need to scale up or out, or alternatively, maximize the impact from doing so. As such, it’s an excellent compliment for most innovations. However, it’s just that: a compliment. Your primary method of scaling should always be either to Scale Up or Scale Out depending on whether your bottleneck is more on the supply or demand side.
Even in the case of AWS, which has created entirely new vectors for scaling out and has dramatically subsidized their costs for scaling up, it obviously wouldn’t have been possible without Amazon already being at significant scale.
What’s the takeaway? These dimensions are distinct but very much intertwined.
If you can scale on all three of these dimensions in a coordinated way, you will not only be much more likely to achieve significant scale with your innovation in the first place, but also maximize the potential for scale and impact from those efforts. If you build momentum on one of the dimensions, some of that momentum will carry over to the other dimensions, which again helps you accelerate change going forward.
As such, pay attention to each of these dimensions and try to consider all of them in your plans to scale innovation. That doesn’t mean you should focus on all three from the get-go, on the contrary, but planning with the big picture in mind can allow you to make much more educated decisions.
Scaling innovation in practice
As we’ve established above, there unfortunately isn’t a one-size fits all solution to scaling innovation.
Achieving breakthrough success with an innovation, which is the goal of scaling innovation, always requires many related and adjacent (usually more incremental) innovations.
This is an extremely common pattern that you will see happening over and over again if you just start paying attention to it. Square co-founder Jim McKelvey has done a great job in describing that in more detail in his recent book called the Innovation Stack.
A well-known example is the lightbulb. Edison patented his famous design back in 1879, but most households didn’t yet have access to electricity, so it wasn’t something they could benefit from. It took countless other innovations and another 45 years before even half of US homes had one, even though the benefits were obvious.
In practice, scaling an innovation is simply an iterative and exploratory process where you focus on eliminating whatever bottleneck is preventing you from scaling, one by one. And, as we saw in the example of the lightbulb, sometimes these can be much bigger and more fundamental than you may think at first.
Often you can just copy solutions other people have already used for the same or a similar problem (which you should always go for if you can), but many times you will also need to innovate something completely new and occasionally even go beyond your core product.
With that said, there are some common patterns that can be helpful for structuring your thinking when faced with some of these bottlenecks. However, as each innovation is ultimately new, and thus unique, these won’t necessarily fit every case.
Having said that, we’ll share one framework for each dimension of scaling below. We’ve also created a toolkit that includes the frameworks as editable templates, along with some examples and other supporting material, which you can download here.
For most organizations and innovations, the demand side is likely the source of most bottlenecks.
The way we see it, this is not just about drumming up interest and demand for your product, but also about making sure that it fits the needs and budgets of the buyers in your market. And of course, you need to make sure you’re in a market, or at least one that has the potential to become, large enough to accommodate your scaling efforts.
Unlike what people often think, product-market fit isn’t enough for a business to be scalable. You also need to have the right business and operating models, as well as use the right channels.
In other words, scaling out isn’t just about product-market fit, as people often mistakenly think. You also need to have the right business and operating models and use the right channels. Brian Balfour has written an excellent five-part series about this, which I highly recommend you read.
The basic idea is pretty simple: your business needs to align all of these aspects in a cohesive manner to be able to scale. If even one of them is wrong, growth will feel like, as Balfour puts it, “pushing a boulder uphill”. It will take way too much capital, effort, and time. However, get the four elements right together, and the growth will come naturally.
What’s important to understand here is that the model isn’t a static picture you just do once. If the market changes, or you run into challenges that force you to change one of these elements, you’ll need to review each element and make sure the big picture still works.
For some products and businesses, especially those with physical products, the supply side often becomes a key consideration.
Here, the bottlenecks can be extremely varied, and dependences on external suppliers can lead to challenges that are hard to overcome.
In general, what top innovators do differently from the rest of the companies is that they almost always vertically integrate their value chain as they are working towards scaling up.
There are many benefits to this approach, such as reduced overhead, but the key differences are in increased quality, and most importantly, the company’s ability to control their own destiny and innovate more freely because they’re not being constrained by their supply chain.
Top innovators vertically integrate their value chain to address bottlenecks and turn cost centers into additional sources of growth and profit.
The classic example is Apple, and the way that they control both the hardware and software of their products. In recent years, they’ve been increasing that integration in both directions. They’re moving upstream to offer more services on top of their operating systems, as well as downstream by designing their own processors, which has provided them with a big performance advantage.
However, there are many others. Amazon, Microsoft, Tesla, Google, Netflix, Nvidia, and pretty much every innovative company is trying to do the same in the scope of their own business.
The basic idea is again simple: if a part of your supply chain becomes a major bottleneck, or is a major cost center, you should try to take control of those parts to address the bottlenecks and turn cost centers into additional sources of growth and profit, just like Amazon has done with AWS, but also warehousing and shipping.
That isn’t to say that vertical integration wouldn’t be challenging or have downsides. It certainly is and does. Because of these limitations, it’s generally advisable to only vertically integrate to the parts of your supply chain that either are a clear bottleneck or could become a key competitive advantage for you. However, top innovators often have little choice but to take these steps if they want to move fast enough and have enough control to be able to scale their innovation to its full potential.
Another key consideration on the supply side is simply the architecture of your products and services, and the process you have for delivering them. It’s obviously much easier to have a scalable architecture and automated processes for purely software or content focused businesses, but how you craft these does play a huge role for complex physical products too.
This is again a very extensive topic on its own, but the goal should be to try to make the manufacturing, delivery, and service of your products as seamless and scalable as possible. As with everything else we’ve discussed so far, this too is an iterative process.
However, to provide you with a slightly more practical framework to get started, here’s Elon Musk explaining how he’s learned to approach this topic after his early struggles of trying to do that with the extremely complex products at SpaceX and Tesla.
While Musk specifically talks about the process in the scope of engineering for scale, these same principles also apply to your organization and internal processes too.
And, as Musk explained in the video, it’s easy to get tempted by the promises of optimizing for efficiency and automation, but if you haven’t addressed the big picture first, these will often end up just being a big waste of time and money.
So, make sure to start by first eliminating those unnecessary requirements and parts or tasks, and try to simplify the design before you focus too much on optimizing for efficiency and automating.
In addition to supply and demand, we still have the third dimension of utilization to cover. The idea with this “scaling deep” part is to find creative ways to make the most out of existing supply to either unlock new demand, maximize the utilization of those assets, or simply to increase your customer retention by finding ways to get more value for them from your products.
As you may have guessed by now, the specifics vary quite a lot on a case-by-case basis, but the flowchart below can hopefully serve as a starting point for your efforts in this area.
To summarize, there are three common paths you may take here.
The first is to find ways to increase the usage of assets that are only being used a fraction of the time through practices such as asset sharing and virtualization.
The second is to move from one-off purchases to a subscription to eliminate friction and increase the usage of the services.
The third is to find additional ways to expand the use of the product. This is usually done either by finding new value-adding uses for the same product, or simply by activating usage through means such as improved quality, usability, better communication etc.
However, sometimes it might even be necessary to work around tougher and more pervasive issues, such as regulatory considerations or even the changing of societal norms.
While increased utilization isn’t often that glamorous or exciting, it can really make a difference in making your business and operating models efficient enough to allow you to scale volume faster and more sustainably.
Scaling an innovation won’t be easy. It will always take years, and an endless amount of hard work with an extreme focus on solving each and every bottleneck standing in your way.
Hopefully you’ll find some of the frameworks and playbooks we’ve introduced in this article useful for shaping your thinking, and for building your organization and processes, but you’ll inevitably come across plenty of challenges where you’ll just need to figure out the solutions yourself. Still, if you want to truly succeed with innovation, that’s what you’re in for.
So, be prepared for those challenges, and be realistic with your expectations and timelines. For example, the “growth gap” can easily sneak up on your organization if top management has unrealistic expectations for the financial returns of innovation.
In general, large organizations have some disadvantages, but they also have huge advantages when it comes to scaling an innovation, so look for ways to leverage those advantages to your benefit.
And finally, make sure to surround yourself with top talent that’s prepared for the ride. Scaling innovation is teamwork, and it takes a special kind of a team to pull it off. You need people that are used to constant change, have a growth mindset, and the skills needed to solve whatever problems your domain may have.
As mentioned, scaling innovation is a journey that happens in small increments, and at times, it will feel frustrating. But if your team persists, keeps on learning and solving problems, you can eventually close in on whatever the full potential of your innovation is.
Innovation organization doesn’t thrive without innovation culture: organization and process without culture are like a factory without raw materials; culture without organization and process is appropriate to initiate a handful of innovation projects, but doesn’t scale.
To set-up a streamlined innovation process, I find these 3 organization pieces to be paramount:
1. Test and learn iterative path
Share the virus of test and learn in short cycles with your innovators; confronting the value proposition with the customer target as soon as possible to capture insights, and iterating positively on your solution as on your target users; avoiding the product bias pitfall: ‘don’t fall in love with your product, fall in love with the user problem’ as Ash Maurya says; spending the initial time on materializing the value proposition, designing mock-up to let users clearly visualize it and express feedback and insights; sorting out the key hypothesis to validate and the appropriate tests to perform, and capturing The Right It, without yet engaging in significant product development;
2. Collaborative platforms design
Open innovation blossoms with shared goals and explicit knowledge; to facilitate knowledge sharing, entice innovators to create a platform that let others create value on top of it, applying modular design from the very beginning; having in mind end-users and developers ecosystem as 2 different user targets; exposing building blocks (APIs) that can be quickly reused internally and externally to create instantly new businesses;
Once product market fit is on the trend to prove true, the innovator’s venture shall anticipate the acceleration of sales and operations, the scale-up. Crossing the chasm and industrializing processes (marketing, product, sales, recruitment and on-boarding, partnerships) requires preparation, just as if you were upgrading your sailboat from a promenade near the coast to a transatlantic journey with heavy wind blowing. Have also in mind that the corporate scale-up has simultaneously to win.
Unleashing creativity and autonomy is fine, but a framework actually helps innovators; At Google, they say ‘innovation loves constraints’, and ‘the faster, the better’: speed is a constraint that pushes you to focus on the core, and to eliminate the superfluous, leading to frugal execution. ‘Less is more’ claimed famous designer Mies van der Rohe. In that sense, speed triggers a positive tension;
2. Upstream aspiration with C-level and business units commitment
Innovators often start bottom-up initiatives; at a certain point, innovators need to be aspired with C-level and business units support to leverage the corporation assets; explain to these sponsors how innovation differs from ideation, and that it seeks for business impact, just like marketing and sales: innovation is about conquering new customers, improving loyalty, differentiating from competition, creating value for the users and for the company; align innovators endeavors with corporation strategy, and gain credibility with quick wins in your innovation portfolio; you’ll know you have succeeded when business units will include innovation KPIs across the organization;
3. Stimulation of boldness, and risk taking spirit
innovation contests and crowdsourcing stimulate ideation if appropriate recognition comes along; if we want employees to further engage with boldness in execution, failure has to be accepted as part of the innovation process, as Gore company shows it with its Celebrate Failure event; do not underestimate that, while a company has dozen of successful projects to hide a failure behind the curtain, it’s not possible for an employee to offset an experience on his resume; how to detect opportunities out of setbacks, how to become a learning organization is a necessary culture: ‘I never fail, I either succeed or learn’ claimed Nelson Mandela. It requires training for the employees and for the leaders: letting the leaders embrace and learn from failure during a ‘eat your own dog food’ workshop is a fruitful practice I’m a great believer in.