The Life and Death of a Corporate Innovation Lab — RIP 2012–2016
What happens when a team of three receive a few million dollars with the unlimited mission to, “Go forth and innovate!” for an enterprise organization?
This is the story of Ignite, an innovation lab for one of the world’s largest companies, Adecco Group (1). All parts included — what went right, went wrong, and wish we would have done. I was one of the original three founding members, and the last to stay near the end. My goal is to share all I learned, to not only remember and apply to future projects, but hopefully help other groups from falling into similar traps.
First-off….There has been an influx of innovation labs popping-up all over the world. In the past, this was for the top tech hubs — the IBMs and Googles. Today, these labs are everywhere. Even in my tier-two-town of Jacksonville, FL I can name three or four in healthcare, finance, transportation, and HR without breaking a sweat. Industries not typically thought of as “innovative” or what you would expect. So, what happened?
My 82yr old great-aunt is on Facebook, and my friend’s granddad Uber’s to his doctor’s appointments. What!?
Uber and Facebook are old news for 2017 and everywhere, but 2012, IMO, was the inflection point. That’s when two massive corps died, Blockbuster and Kodak. That same year Spotify, AirBnB, Warby Parker, Dropbox, and Uber started becoming household names. This made every major company in the world question their strategy. Shit was real.
Adecco Group (1) was one of those companies and decided to make a change. They started by focusing internally. In the summer of 2012, The CEO started investing in education for his top 100 managers on the “future of digital”. Executives from around the world attended a week long digital master class at Hyper Island, Sweden.
The class is amazing. It’s designed to convince all levels of leadership that change HAS to happen. That the world does not work like it used to, and they prove it in various ways. The foundation of the week is around changing mindsets, and providing the tools to bring new ways of approaching problems out of teams.
My favorite story comes from one of the speakers, Mark Comerford. He starts with social media, and asking the audience if digital relationships are real relationships.
This group of old-school recruiters said, “No.”
Mark then shares a bit about the relationship between his grand-son and Mark’s dad (great-grand-dad to the grand-son). Every night the great-grand-dad reads to the great-grand-son before bed. Mark asks the audience, “Is that a relationship?” They all agree, “Yes.”
Then he shares that the great-grand-dad lives 1,500 miles away. He connects to his little relative via FaceTime. They’ve never met in person.
Now…is it still a tight relationship?…
That’s powerful, and changes a mental framework for how technology can change everything. Even strengthen relationships.
At the end of the week the group started asking, “Ok, we have all this knowledge. Now what?” That’s when Ignite’s founder suggested starting an innovation group focused on building awesome stuff. On the spot, the CEO and CFO said, “YES! Present to us in a week how you see this working out. Once the board approves, you’ll have immediate funding.” (not a real quote…but close enough)
Seven days later, I found myself hearing the story above and persuaded to help. :-) Zero convincing needed. Shocked, excited, and confused…I had no idea the journey we were about to start.
Our Initial Setup:
Our goal was to produce ideas and test them out as fast as possible. The mantras of “Build, Measure, Learn” and “Fail Fast” were all the hotness at the time. We did this with a three phase product cycle for ideas: 1) Seed, 2) Project, and 3) Product.
Each phase lasted 90 days. At the end, the idea team would present to the global Adecco CFO and President of Ignite. If leadership approved, the team would move to the next phase. With each phase comes new responsibilities, a bigger team, and harder metrics.
We then thought it would be awesome to do this Shark Tank style, and let two or three ideas pitch against each other. Except only one can win. This would allow us to move faster on lots of ideas.
It makes sense, seems logical and simple, and was the completely wrong thing to do. More on this coming in later post.
The First 100 Days:
The first 100 days of building anything are the most important, hardest, and exhausting, especially when you have to prove quick value. Corporate innovation labs seem to only have a 3–4 year shelf-life before they’re axed. We didn’t have all the time in the world to figure things out, we needed to show progress as fast as possible.
This means the lab itself needed to be created as an entity, as well as start working on ideas. There’s hiring to do, office space to rent, and branding. Oh yeah, and then a vision. What the hell are you going to build and why? We’ll get to that, but here are the things that went well.
100 days — Good Moves:
Here are the take-aways that stuck with me and gave me a sense that we were awesome.
Kick things off right.
Set the tone of your organization from the very start. After we received funding, we took a one week trip to Stockholm to work with an organization called Britny.se and did essentially a 5-day Design Sprint. This gave us a chance to work as a team, and broke up the corporate “move slow” mentality. It helped us set a direction and get moving.
Get out of the building, and work at a coworking facility.
We started the lab by working at CoworkJax (now closed). Best decision we made. It brought the team closer to the startup community and introduced us to some of our best talent. Including our first hire, a fantastic designer named Amber Aultman. More about “Why we hired a designer first” in an upcoming post.
Within the first 100 days, we created two Seeds, found office space, doubled our team, and set up the first Seed pitch with the global CFO. Our pitches were not prototypes, they were slimmed down products that had real customer feedback. We let the users talk about why they liked the product.
Big learning — Show why you’re awesome, don’t say that you’re awesome.
Plug into the local community.
We worked hard to introduce ourselves to the local startup world in a genuine way. We sponsored events, started two of the largest meetup groups in the area (that are still running Big Data Jax and #StartupJax), and donated a ton of “people hours” to grow the local startup/tech ecosystem. Our goal was to support the community and keep local talent close-by.
Pick a technology for the whole team, not at the expense of learning.
Ignite ran on Rails, but our first Seeds were PHP. This was not a bad thing, the PHP code was what our first developers knew the best and allowed us to move fast. We were able to execute on a concept and test ideas within a couple days in PHP, and then give dev the space they needed to refactor in Rails. This plays into what Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X (Google’s Innovation Lab), talks about when encouraging teams to learn (fail) fast.
100 days — Stumbling Blocks:
We didn’t know how we were measured or what our vision was.
Were we there to disrupt the parent company? Create new streams of revenue? Play with new technology, and share the knowledge with the rest of the company? Inspire employees to share ideas? Or, only be a talking point for the corporate sales team to show how innovative the main company is? We had no idea. This was a major underlying problem that came through in everything we did.
A vision can help guide the team to know if they are winning. In fact, the number one question I learned to ask over the 4 years was, “What does success look like?” It would have helped us curate the Seed themes and set OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Most important, it would have helped the team rally during hard times. And Rallying is what an innovation team does…and that’s what we loved to do… when we knew what we we’re aiming at.
Biggest Learning — set hard milestones and rally the team — nobody applies to work at an innovation lab because they want to sit around…they want to work on cool shit that makes an impact, so do that!
Every relationship counts.
This may be obvious, but relationships will build or tear down every piece of your business. Every relationship is critical, especially in a corporate innovation lab. We found that we were building tools mostly for our internal organizations and sister companies, which means that our “client” list was less than 100 people. And all these people were colleagues. Relationships was not our strong suit, we were problem solvers, hackers, and designers, not Fortune 500 executives. This means that the lab’s leadership needed to spend a majority of their time building relationships with those 100 clients, or making so much money with external clients that it didn’t matter…the latter is more realistic.
If you are the leader of anything, and you feel like it’s a part-time job, then you need to revaluate what you’re doing.
Beware of reporting structure.
Ignite rolled-up to the global CFO of Adecco. He was a great asset and provided insights into the business we didn’t understand. At the same time, the lab was measured by the same standards as the rest of the business, full blown established entities with high profits. A lab will only last so long reporting to a CFO when cash is a measure of success. If the culture is around monthly revenue goals, and the lab is a completely different animal…there may be some very hard conversations around the corner. Netflix had its first profitable quarter in 2003, they started in 1997. How long is the c-suite willing to take a loss?
“Be a profit center, not a cost center.” — Gabriela Perez
This is a great quote that startup wizard Gabriela Perez gave me when she visited us about 9 months before we shut down. It was too late, but still great advice. The innovation lab concept is great, but businesses take time — especially game changing business. Again, Netflix ran their DVD business from 1998–2007. It then took their digital streaming business from 2008–2012 to pull down Blockbuster. That’s only 1 idea that took years and millions in investment…how much is the lab willing to invest? If a company forces their lab to make small incremental profits each quarter, does that hold them back from taking the risks on making real change?
Grow the team, but every hire matters.
We made some amazing first hires that lasted almost the whole 4 years we were around, but one move almost killed us. There was another startup-type entity in the Adecco world called, Path.to, that was coming to its end. They had double the amount of employees, each one amazing, and some of the top talent in the area. We decided to merge our team with theirs, except they didn’t want any part of it. They had built a well known brand, a strong team, and now they had to work with us…it was very hard and most people quit. The culture took a nosedive. The easier move would have been to let Path.to take its course. Then, open job opportunities for those individuals to apply to. This would have allowed us to grow in a steady and controlled manner, and given the Path.to crew a choice of being a part of Ignite.
Biggest Learning — bring in experts, and give them room to make an impact. We brought in Jessie Shternshus, CEO of the ImprovEffect, to break down our walls and start communicating with each other. It took a year of continuous training to save the team, and hit product milestones.
Make it Count:
Being a part of anything brand-new is extremely hard. A roller-coaster of emotion can’t describe the ups and downs that teams go through, but no matter what — make the experience count.
Rally the team, be there for each other, and don’t take failures personally. Find inspiration in everything, and respect the people that are grinding it out at the corporate office that are making the innovation lab possible. The minute you feel uninspired/bored/unmotivated or feel like you’re not learning/growing personally, it’s time to leave and free up the labs budget to bring on the next wave of energy.
The last 4+ years I couldn’t personally be more proud of the team who did an amazing job. We got in our own way a lot, but in the end everybody landed in great roles — from running new innovation teams, to working at some of the top startups in the world such as Udacity and Tuft & Needle.
Without them, the products that were built and still running for thousands of people today wouldn’t exist.
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Ignite’s parent, Adecco Group, is a $30B public company based in Switzerland. It’s made of 40+ brands spread across 60 countries around the world. They have 30,000 employees, and are considered the world’s largest staffing firm helping 800,000+ people find work each year.
Who’s this guy?
My name is Anthony Catanese and I love working with teams at the intersection of real world problems and technology. I’m a Senior Product Manager at Beeline during the day, and help product teams move fast at Unhinge.io.
The Ignite Space
I got some questions about our space…here you go: We were located at 6 E. Bay St. in Downtown Jacksonville, FL. Content Design Group + our designers Katy Garrison and Amber Aultman did all the interior design, and the walls were hand painted by the a bunch of the Igniters (they did fantastic job).
Thank You — Justin Nixon and Jessie Shternshus for all the edits and suggestions on this post…you both rock!