The Right Peers, Support, Action: Three Steps to Corporate Innovation

Written by Misti Yang, Contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Bob Jansen launched the Dutch Lean Startup Circle, a network of entrepreneurs dedicated to exploring Lean Startup practices through meetups and workshops, in 2009 with his Firmhouse partner Robbert van Geldrop. It wasn’t long before folks from corporations started showing up at Circle meetups wanting to know how they could utilize the same methods to spur innovation within an established organization.

“Corporations were interested in faster results,” Bob remembers, and over the years, enterprise interest hasn’t waned. Through his work with corporate innovators like ING, Bob has witnessed the Lean Startup approach to product development deliver results that are better than traditional innovation tactics.

“Corporations typically invest in maybe three projects with big budgets. Now, they can invest in more projects with smaller budgets. It is the same mindset as [startup] investors,” Bob says. He explains that the Lean Startup process also creates a closer connection with customers, which results in a better understanding of what products to build without your typical market research. “It’s not about being scrappy; it’s about being thoughtful,” he says.

Bob knows that implementing a new approach at a large corporation is hard. “Coming from the startup world, it was easy to dismiss people as being difficult to work with at first,” Bob shares, as he reflects on corporate rules and procedures. Today, though, he’s experienced in the ways of the corporation. Although he recognizes that every industry is different, Bob has some pointers for creating an innovation team within an enterprise organization.

“Get your most action-focused people together”

Bob says the best employees to recruit for a team tasked with innovating are action-focused. You onboard them in how the Lean Startup process works and set them loose to experiment with multiple trial projects. As they progress, track how their results compare to other corporate initiatives to develop new products.

Create an innovation council with members of critical departments

Your innovation team won’t make it far without the proper organizational support. Something as simple as testing a new homepage could run into endless procedural roadblocks, or the person a team needs to make an important decision could stall a meeting for six weeks. To avoid these experiment-killing scenarios, a specific combination of departments and leadership roles needs to be part of the process from the beginning. “You need to create a framework so that the right people know how to think with a team, not block them,” Bob explains. You need buy-in from the fabulous five.

According to Bob, the fabulous five are the departments that can make or break a product experiment: marketing, compliance, legal, finance, and IT. “These are important functions for a large corporation, and I have learned you need to work with them upfront,” Bob shares.

To make meaningful progress, he recommends establishing an innovation council with a representative from each of the departments. Each representative should understand the value of Lean Startup practices and be able to make quick decisions on issues that will impact her department. Bob notes that one of the key communication challenges for creating believers will be countering the perception that product experimentation is “risky.”

Another piece of advice for building buy-in: Don’t stop at the C-suite. “Even when you have support from the higher ranks, middle management is often where the process gets killed,” Bob says. He’s learned that middle management often has different priorities, such as hitting the numbers. Lean Startup experiments don’t bring in money, so if these managers don’t understand the goal, they’ll shut you down. “Don’t think, ‘Oh, we’ve got the CEO committed, we’re there now.’ That’s not everything. You need everybody else who is involved in the day-to-day operations.”

Get by with a little help from your peers

Bob is a big fan of peer-to-peer learning. In fact, his top advice for getting started is to “try to get in touch with a company that has done this.” He notes that several companies are looking at the work that Eric did with GE for guidance, and he thinks that is a great idea.

In the end, Bob has learned that starting with the right team is important, but innovation efforts will fail without the support of the entire organization and the insight of experience.

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