Nine important rules you need to follow to set up a successful Corporate Innovation Lab

Our task is to foster corporate innovation and we often do so within innovation lab environments. This gives us the chance to get to know many different programs and innovation management approaches used in various businesses throughout Europe, the US, and China while also allowing us to develop our own programs within different corporations.

We did some research about this topic and combined with our own experiences we came up with nine rules you should follow to make your program successful:

Set the scope

Don’t start the journey without a clear scope of what you want to reach. The problem with unclear targets is that your program will never satisfy your expectations. Undefined expectations are the worst. The team you set up needs to know what kind of business models you’re looking for, what products are interesting, and what assets you’re providing to the program.

Additionally, you should be clear on your idea sourcing strategy. Are you looking for external ideas and startups or is your focus on finding ideas and people from within the company? Depending on that question is another open topic: what do you want to reach with the program? Learning or actual product development?

The KPIs and goals for the program can be changed over time, but not within a batch. And you shouldn’t change them at least for the first two batches.

Get expertise

It doesn’t matter if you source teams and ideas from the outside or the inside: get external mentors to enable real creative thinking. The moment all your mentors are internal executives, you won’t be able to think and work outside the box. External mentors ask the stupid and politically incorrect questions. They will put their fingers in the wounds and will train your participants to leave their well-known path and dig deep into their topic.

Essential to this is the selection of mentors. Select people with a track record either in the industry you selected or in methodologies you want to foster or both. The mentors should also be involved in the decision making as to whether teams will be supported further or not. There’s nothing more frustrating for those alpha people you need as mentors than their opinion not being acknowledged.

Create a brand

For every successful product a branding that sticks is one of the key success factors. The same goes for innovation programs. Treat your program like a startup itself, create a brand, a message, a design, a soul.

How should your team members otherwise differ the program from any other corporate project they have been working on? How should you be able to attract both mentors and participants from the outside? How should “normal” employees of your company otherwise get in touch and remember the program?

Live your program and make your team members ambassadors of the brand. This works for products. This also works for corporate innovation programs.

Select the tools

One of the greatest things you can do within a corporate innovation lab program is to get rid of corporate IT. Try to imagine: No governance! No central software distribution! No eight minutes operating system boot up! No call to the support hotline to install a printer! No disabled USB ports!

The teams in your program will use Google. And by doing so they will get in touch with beautiful tools like Slack, WordPress, Amazon Web Services, Mailchimp, Hubspot, Trello, Instapage, etc. Using these tools is great because they will increase productivity and with access to the huge amounts of tutorials and guides throughout the internet your teams will see the benefits very quickly.

On the other hand try to have the tools for the most important tasks standardized within the program (i.e. Slack for team communication and Instapage for landing pages). Having too many different tools will make the teams more uncomparable and will remove synergies between the teams and participants.

That being said: tools are not only technological. The methodologies used are also tools within your program. Try to use tangible and physical things in your lab, like scrum-boards or progress post-its. It makes the energy visible and motivates all people wandering in your halls.

Get some toys

The rooms you create will not make any difference just because you acquire some fancy architect that makes it look more hipsteresque and industrial. It’s always the people and the real behavior that brings a lab to life. And the toys. Never forget the toys!

With toys we mean things like VR glasses, 3D printers, smart home appliances, 4K screens, Playstations, Nerf Guns, etc. All kind of things that make kids and grown-ups more ineffective and unproductive at first sight. But think about it for a second: you want people to think outside the box! Let them experience things they don’t have at home! How should anyone bring you an idea that makes the mega trend VR a realistic business opportunity for you if he or she has never experienced VR? Don’t be shocked by the money you invest for toys. You will lose more money if you don’t.

Become agile

First of all: agile does not equal scrum. We love being agile, however, we’re not religious about the way we do it. Having sprints and all the base concepts of agile approaches is fine, but introducing all the roles of a full scrum best practice approach will blow up teams and kill agility in our experience.

What is more important is the real documentation of learnings and experiences in addition to the project progress.

KPIs, Controlling, Monitoring

Nothing is more important than having a clear reporting structure. The executives supporting your program will look for KPIs and you will have to deliver them. So define them early (see above) and report actively.

The data for your reporting should be generated within your projects. So what you have to do is communicate the measures to the teams. Basically that’s the same thing that happens to every normal startup in the wild world when they get a professional investor onboard. So why should this be different in your lab? Avoid nasty surprises by monitoring your teams and combining it with the results you get back in your report.

Be transparent

The one thing large enterprise organizations normally don’t have is openness and transparency. Most decision making is done with political things in mind. Having exclusive knowledge is an asset you don’t give away so easily. That’s the complete opposite of what is state of the art in the innovation community everybody is longing for. Sharing what worked and what didn’t openly in an transparent culture will foster knowledge creation for the whole program. So set a good example and be transparent yourself. Communicate your learnings into the company and show your participants that this is a strength and that you are strong enough to handle the backfire. They will thank you by being open with you.

Select people, not ideas

The final rule maybe sounds a bit crazy, but it is our most important lesson. When you target internal participants for your program, don’t let them come to you with an idea and try to push that idea through the program. Try to select the best characters and talents for your program. If you combine the right people, ideas will come naturally. Guide them through ideation and exploration.

The problem with selecting ideas is that ideas suck. As easy as this sounds, this has some bad consequences. Senior management will ask you for what happened to that great idea that has been pitched when people got in the program. If you did your work well, the idea pivoted into something better, something completely different, but corporate decision makers are used to getting progress on the same idea. They will feel that the program failed, no matter how good your result is.

Finally, we experienced that people with ideas do not equal the best people. There’s no statistic to that, just our experience. It always worked better when we put people selection instead of idea selection.

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