I attended ProductCamp Toronto this past weekend (which was a lot of fun, thanks to everyone who helped organize it) and one of the discussions I participated in was titled “Looking for That Next Billion Dollar Idea.”   Well if that doesn’t get you into the room, I’m not sure what does.  The discussion was kicked off by Chris Herbert who had participated in a year-long innovation contest run by a large technology company.  His group came close to winning the contest and he shared the positives and negatives of the experience.  We talked about how great ideas get formed an developed and then we ended up talking a bit about how to foster and manage innovation inside a larger company.  Yeah, OK, I admit it, I might have given the conversation a nudge in that direction.  I’m a bossy betty, I can’t help it.

Having run marketing for a couple of incubation projects at IBM and working inside an incubator right now – this is a topic close to my heart.  The interesting thing is how our conversation touched on many of the things that I think are critical to fostering innovation inside a large organization.

Here are a few we talked about in the session:

  1. Innovative ideas are nothing without a passionate idea team – In smaller companies or startups the person with an innovative idea naturally becomes the one to drive it through to deployment.  At larger companies, this doesn’t always happen but it should.  A great new idea needs to fight its way past doubters and skeptics.  It needs to not compromise in the face of process and bureaucracy.  This is not a job that can be simply assigned to someone.  Idea owners need to passionately believe in it and be willing to risk their careers to make it happen.  That might sound dramatic but in the projects I have worked on it has literally come down to that.  Without a team with that level of commitment, any idea, no matter how great it is will fail.  Chris’ experiences in participating in the innovation contest were similar.  The passion and excitement of the team mattered as much as the idea itself.
  2. Passionate idea teams still need help – Chances are your passionate team won’t include all of the skills needed to take the idea to market.  Passion alone isn’t going to build a great business plan, figure out a winning go to market strategy or execute a killer launch.  A set of experts in business development, contracts, sales and marketing (if I do say so myself) need to be on hand to give advice and guidance when it is needed.

  3. Even “failing” ideas need to be recognized – Idea teams by definition put a load of effort and guts into driving an idea forward.  Even if the project doesn’t move all the way through to market, idea teams need to be recognized for their efforts if you ever expect them to give it another shot with their next big idea.  Chris shared his surprise and disappointment that after the contest ended, their entry which almost won but didn’t, received no recognition after a year’s worth of effort.

  4. Process and structure need to get out of the way – This is why larger companies need incubation in the first place.  Incubation teams need to be given enough space to get around process and procedure that will only slow them down.  Folks in this discussion were skeptical about the ability to drive innovation inside a large company without getting bogged down in process or politics.  My experience has been that it can work but there needs to be a conscious effort to get the process out of the way.

Some further reading:

  • Paul To over at the Corporate Angels Blog has a great post on how larger companies can help make their incubation programs successful.
  • Paul also pointed me to a great post by Innosight (you need to register but it’s worth it, trust me) called “The Innovators Survival Guide” which offers a great set of practical things you can do to shore up your innovation projects in the short term while the economy stinks.
  • On a similar note Innovation Edge has a post warning that “In Economic Hard Times, Don’t Cut Innovation”
  • Geoffrey Moore wrote one of my all time favorite posts on Innovation called “The Top 10 innovation Myths” This is an oldie but still stands up today.  I particularly like the points around “Great Innovators are Usually Egotistical Maverics” and “We Need to be More Like Google”