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How to Lead a Corporate Innovation Team Through Uncharted Territory

Internal innovation isn’t impossible for enterprise companies, but it's improbable. Here's how they can evolve.

How can corporations become more innovative?
Great ideas don't spring up out of nowhere.

Microsoft’s Zune might have been a decent media player, but it wasn’t what many would consider innovative.

The portable media device was meant to be Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iPod. In reality, it was a “too little, too late” copycat. Shortly before its discontinuation in June 2012, Robbie Bach, then-leader of Microsoft’s home entertainment and mobile business, admitted that his leadership had a lot to do with the flop.

“We just weren’t brave enough, honestly, and we ended up chasing Apple with a product that wasn’t actually a bad product,” Bach explained, “but it was still a chasing product, and there wasn’t a reason for somebody to say, oh, I have to go out and get that thing.”

Bach may bear some of the blame, but he’s hardly alone in his innovation struggles. Google managed to mirror his mistake with Google+; it’s in the midst of shutting the platform down. In its quest to get into the social media game, the search giant did little more than model what was already on the market.

Leadership Is Everything

Why can’t some of the world’s largest, most technologically advanced organizations seem to innovate? Because unlike startups, established companies are designed to defend existing lines of business. To plan and protect a product that’s truly new, they need exceptional leadership. Those leaders:

1. Provide startup perspective.
Almost without exception, corporate innovation leaders have spent their career in the enterprise world. Why? Because corporations don’t hand out titles like “chief innovation officer” to people who haven’t spent years working their way up the ladder. While promoting from within makes sense in most business contexts, innovation leaders need experience building and scaling products from scratch.

For a sense of the experiences that corporate innovation leaders need, look at innovation accelerators’ own leadership teams. The co-founders of corporate innovation company Cie Digital Labs, which has tackled innovation projects for firms ranging from Leslie’s Poolmart to Pilot Flying J, are both entrepreneurs who’ve also worked at enterprises like Yahoo and Overture. Cie also maintains both entrepreneur-in-residence and executive-in-residence programs, giving it ongoing exposure to both ends of the market.

2. Pose the question, not the answer.
From our first day of school, we’re taught that answers are what matters most. We carry that mindset into the corporate world, which treats leaders who like to ask questions as idiosyncratic at best and ineffective at worst. But innovation initiatives want to find a new solution to an existing problem; mistakes like Zune get made when leaders think they already know the answer.

After judging case competitions at business schools for the past 30 years, it’s this lesson that stands out most to innovation consultant Jeff DeGraff. He notes that when teams are given hypothetical corporate challenges and asked to brainstorm solutions, the strongest ones invariably come from the teams that devote the most time to understanding the question itself.

3. Protect the team from politics and pet projects.
When other corporate leaders get wind of an innovation unit, they tend to react in one of two ways: They either claim the team is a waste of resources because the product development department is already innovating or try to get a piece of it by suggesting the innovation team tackle projects for other departments. Neither response is conducive to “moonshot”-style innovation, which is what most corporations have in mind when founding the team.

To understand just how critical it is that the innovation leader be a strong advocate for her team’s original purpose, consider Innovation Leader’s findings on common obstacles to corporate innovation. More respondents pointed to “politics, turf wars, and a lack of alignment” than any other barrier to innovation — in other words, a combination of pushy peers and pushover innovation team leaders.

4. Embrace failure.
It’s the dirty truth of innovation work: Before it can go right, it has to go wrong over and over again. Corporate innovation leaders who don’t understand that wind up shooting themselves in the foot by punishing team members for doing exactly what they need to do to create something truly new.

But it’s not enough to tacitly accept failure; innovators need to know that it’s encouraged. Innovation consultant Philosophie even throws weekly “failure parties,” where team members take turns sharing their most spectacular mistakes. After it was forced to can a chatbot it had built for a Latin American television provider, for instance, Philosophie celebrated what it had learned and tasked a human with the job instead.

5. Pay attention to personality mix.

Managing team dynamics is one of the toughest parts of any leadership role. But because corporate innovation teams need a wide range of perspectives with relatively few members, they require leaders to pay particularly close attention to the personalities involved.

To build an “innovation dream team,” design and development studio Yeti suggests five personalities: the visionary, who’s part creator, part dreamer, and part planner; the designer, who squares the visionary’s ideas with the user’s needs; the architect, who brings the visionary and designer’s plans to life; the persuader, who sells the innovation idea to internal and external stakeholders; and the mediator, who manages communication and project timelines.

Internal innovation isn’t impossible for enterprise companies, but it’s improbable. Few of those who’ve made it to the leadership level have the startup experience, patience for failure, or political wherewithal to overcome the corporate tendency to conserve. The fact that some of the most successful brands have struggled should tell you how rare that combination truly is.

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