Eight Ways To Create Space For Innovation

In a previous article, I wrote about the myth of the innovation lab and how intrapreneurs need to focus a good proportion of their time on stakeholder management. A reality that we cannot deny is that innovators who work in established companies face immense cultural challenges. It is these challenges that often trigger the creation of innovation labs. What intrapreneurs are looking for is a space to innovate, away from the interference of corporate antibodies.

This need for a space to innovate is understandable. However, I have observed that intrapreneurs tend to spend a lot their time negotiating with leadership for physical spaces. Once created, these physical spaces are great places to work. They are designed as expressions of startup culture and they can be quite cool.

But this is not enough.  Being given a physical space for innovation does not mean that you have been given space to innovate. In order to overcome the myth of the innovation lab, intrapreneurs need to fight just as hard for other types of spaces to innovate beyond the physical space. Below are eight critical ways to create space for innovation.

  1. Strategic Space: This involves working with leadership to make innovation an explicit part of corporate strategy. As part of our stakeholder management work, we should be working with our leaders to help them think about the future and how the company is going to use innovation to respond. Leaders can then make clear decisions about what the company will (and will not) focus on with regards to innovation. Creating space for innovation within our corporate strategy is fundamental to our success. This is because a clear innovation strategy makes it easy for intrapreneurs to choose to work on projects that they know matter to their company.
  2. Portfolio Space: We need to create space for new innovations within our company’s portfolio of products and services. I have found that it is relatively easy for leaders to invest in incremental improvements to current products. Transformational innovation, where companies make new products for new markets, is much more difficult to accomplish. As such, innovators need to help leaders define their innovation ambitions. This involves deciding on the portfolio balance that we want to achieve as a company (i.e. core vs. adjacent vs. transformational). By making our innovation ambitions explicit, we have a way to create portfolio space for new products. We can then figure out how to track progress and ensure that we are delivering on our ambitions.
  3. Financial Space: Even with a clear strategy for innovation, leaders can fail to protect their investments in innovation from budget cuts within the core business. The tentacles of these cuts often reach the innovation lab, even if it is in a separate physical location. Without a protected budget, there is no financial space for innovation. Funding can be cut at anytime and this means that innovation projects are less likely to have sustained success. To succeed in the long term, we need corporate leaders to create financial space by protecting investments in innovation from budget cuts.
  4. Management Space: Innovation represents a different way of working. Contemporary intrapreneurs use lean startup methods that involve experimentation and iterative product development. This new way of working cannot be managed using the same processes and tools we use for managing our company’s core products. Instead, companies need to create management space for innovation. This is done by using a different set of tools for managing early-stage product development. These tools should help leaders ask the right questions at the right time and help teams make decisions about what to do next.
  5. Time Space: As Gary Hamel notes, it is impossible to sustain innovation within the small shards of free time that we have within our day jobs. A lot intrapreneurs I work with are frustrated by the limited amount of time they have to work on new ideas. This may be one of the benefits of having a separate innovation lab where people can go and work on projects for a period of time. However, I have also been in companies with cool innovation spaces that never get used. Just as leaders need to protect investments in innovation, they also need to allot and protect time for intrapreneurs to focus on developing new products and services.
  6. Learning Space: Innovation requires people to learn new skills. There is no point getting resources and time if we are not going to use them well. Most people in established companies people are used to working in traditional ways. As such, we need to create spaces for learning. As innovators, we need to train our colleagues across different functions on the new ways of working (e.g. lean startup and design thinking). This will be useful later when we need their support for our projects.
  7. Space To Fail: Innovation is about trying out new ideas and sometimes, things don’t go as planned. Most product ideas fail. But the more things we try, the more likely we are to find something that works. This means that intrapreneurs need space to fail and learn. For innovation to flourish, leadership must embrace and celebrate this failure. It is easier for leaders to accept and learn from failure if they make small incremental bets in new ideas, track progress and only double down on those ideas that show the most traction.
  8. Space To Scale: One of the worst things that can happen to intrapreneurs is to develop a really good product with a great business model, only to find that your company is unwilling to take it to scale. This is the problem of success. Sometimes this challenge arises due to a lack of strategic alignment. The challenge can also arise if the new product we are developing cannibalises a currently successful core product. What we need is an explicit commitment from key stakeholders that if we do the hard work of finding a great business model, they will invest in taking it to scale.

In my opinion, the above eight ways to create space for innovation are more important than a physical space. They are much more fundamental to the sustained success of innovation. The physical labs and innovation rooms should only act as expressions of these eight spaces. In fact, if you have these eight spaces within your company you may not even need to setup an innovation lab. You will have succeeded in creating authentic space to innovate.

But getting the above eight spaces for innovation is a difficult task because it ultimately involves leadership decisions.  This further highlights the need for intrapreneurs to engage in stakeholder management. If you set up an innovation lab without being given these eight spaces to innovate by your leadership, then you are actively participating in innovation theatre — and you will need to be a very good actor!

This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Tendayi Viki is the author of The Corporate Startup, an award winning book on how large companies can build their internal ecosystems to innovate for the future while running their core business.



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