The “Internal Startup” Strategy for Digital Transformation and Corporate Innovation

Internal Startup Team Brainstorming

There’s no magic bullet when it comes to corporate innovation and no such thing as a perfect way to structure your innovation efforts – but when you’re leading your team through a digital transformation, it’s all too easy to get it wrong. Here we offer some advice from our own experiences of what both startups and corporates get right… and wrong!

Developing a good innovation strategy for your digital transformation can be just as intimidating as planning a multi-million project. But like so much else in business the starting point is to define your objectives. It’s not just about coming up with new ideas. Instead you have to think about how you:

  • Generate ideas that are relevant (how well do they respond to rapidly changing customer needs and competitive threats)
  • Select ideas to progress (biggest opportunity? Best alignment with current business?)
  • Nurture the evolution of those ideas into fully-fledged products and services (training, incubator, expert coaching?)

Is it best to have a dedicated innovation team, separate from the rest of the company, tasked with coming up with solutions for the big problems?  Or maybe anyone should be allowed (or even encouraged) to come up with creative ideas and drive them forward.

(RELATED: Free blueprint to improve Digital Transformation outcomes: The Corporate Entrepreneurship Roadmap)

If employees are simply allowed to do their own thing then you will find after a few months that things become pretty fixed. Without an incentive system that actively rewards innovation most employees will settle into a comfortable rhythm and behave as if your digital transformation never happened.

A recent digital transformation report from Accenture highlighted the problem. They found that most businesses are simply not getting the results they expected from their transformation programmes.  The cause? Too much focus on digital and tech investment, and too little on people and cultural transformation. Instead, Accenture argue, business need to “look for more than an increased tech budget and to adopt a more risk-taking approach to innovation and new business models.”

As startups have shown, successful ideas can come from anywhere. And your employees, with all of their unique skills, experience and perspectives, are the only truly unique differentiator you have – that your competitors cannot copy!

It’s our job as business leaders to make sure that all employees are able and encouraged to innovate.

But how do you do that without taking on too many risks and putting the company at risk?

Here are some key considerations:

  • Creating a “sandbox” or dedicated innovation centre in which to experiment is a popular approach, but without any liability for their decisions teams too often focus on the wrong tasks. As a business leader, think about how you can give your intrapreneurial teams the freedom to experiment while holding them to strong accountability standards.
  • Breakthrough ideas almost always look like toys or downright bad ideas at first. But then again, so do most genuinely bad ideas! Create a funding model for innovation based on evidence, experimentation and vision to avoid wasting money on vanity projects.
  • Innovation projects, by their very nature, lack the traditional benchmarks that allow most existing project management techniques to measure progress. Instead, create new types of milestones for intrapreneurial teams that are operating autonomously. Provide metered funding aligned to those milestones.
  • If you are worried about an employee’s ability to deliver, ask them if they would like some support. Think about providing professional development and coaching to help people get better at intrapreneurship as a skill.
  • Develop new incentive and career advancement systems that encourage and reward people for taking calculated risks, even if they don’t succeed.

There is no single recipe for success and many-a-company has to change their plan as they learn and evolve. This is where the experience of battle-scarred entrepreneurs comes to the rescue. Once this was all trial and error, but by developing an “internal startup” strategy it is possible to devise a systematic and rigorous process in which you can be confident of consistently good results without having to “bet the company” in order to bring high-risk, high-reward products to market.

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