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Follow These 5 Tips to Innovate Year After Year

Do you work for a large organization and wish your team could innovate with the speed and dexterity of a startup? Here's how.

Casey Branson
Casey Branson

September 25 th 2020 | 5 minute read

Innovation in Large Organizations Can be a Difficult Challenge

Why is it that so many companies—particularly large, established companies like yours, perhaps—consistently struggle to innovate? It’s not for lack of trying.

We work with a lot of people in very large organizations, and they know exactly how important innovation is to their bottom line. But at the same time, the struggle to successfully innovate, improve, and grow year over year is real.

From your position within an established company, it can seem almost impossible to push boundaries or take on risk, particularly during more vulnerable times. Despite plentiful resources, big businesses can be some of the slowest movers when it comes to bringing revolutionary—rather than evolutionary—products to market.

If only you could help that large company more easily move innovation forward, but how?

Solve the Innovation Challenge by Learning from Startups

Let’s say you’re tasked with pursuing breakthroughs in product development. You start a project determined to boldly go where no one at your company has gone before, but quickly you find yourself fielding an endless stream of hurdles, roadblocks, and red tape. Now, instead of charging head first into the “next big thing”, you lose momentum, drive, and worst of all, passion.

It’s easy to get frustrated in these situations but you need to recognize the problem for what it is: the very structure of your organization is likely holding you back.

When the obstacles and snares of your large organization make the road to innovation ominous, the startup community can be a great beacon to steer your decisions by. Your path won’t be exactly like theirs—not by any stretch of the imagination–but you and your team can still draw great inspiration from their methods.

5 Simple Lessons from Startups You can Use to Improve Your Organization’s Innovation Skills

In addition to our work with large organizations, we also work with a number of very innovative startups. Here are 5 lessons we’ve learned from them that you can use to help jumpstart your team:

Lesson 1: Be Purposeful on Purpose

At the end of the day, your team needs a sense of purpose, and purpose is far more motivating than money or title. So take time up front to set the vision.

When you clarify the purpose of your project, you align your team around a clearer, more powerful sense of meaning—one that will help you all overcome hurdles and drive toward success as you move forward together.

This vision doesn’t need to be complicated (in fact, it shouldn’t be). It doesn’t even need to be profound. But it does need to be clear and stated—something we often overlook or presume away.

Lesson 2: Staff Up like a Startup

Now that you know what you’re aiming for, you can make better choices about who you want on board.

Since we’re learning from startups here, it’s important to note that premature scaling is one of the primary reasons startups fail.

Sure, as part of a large organization, your company is more protected against this type of failure, but don’t let that give you a false sense of security. Treat your project like a startup of its own, and scale accordingly—i.e., scale smart. Start with a small, cross-functional team, and avoid staffing up until that team has validated the business model.

Finally, when selecting your lean-mean team of champions, think balance. Your recipe should look like this:

1 part business smarts

1 part technology expertise

1 part design visionary

This is a winning combination among successful startups, and your team will benefit from similar attribute ratios.

Lesson 3: Protect Your Team

As an outside product-development partner, we at M3 are inherently more protected from the “dangers” of attempting lean, startup-minded innovation from within a traditional business environment. But your internal team is right in the thick of this battle.

What “dangers,” you ask? This approach probably stands in stark contrast to the way the rest of the company is functioning. So you’ll probably deal with questions from the outside. Doubters. Naysayers.

And even if you work in some magical wonderland where everyone outside of your team cheers you on with colors flying, you’re still going to face obstacles that will never confront those following the standard path. Just remember, the standard, less torturous path will not lead to innovation.

Within the walls of M3, our team gets to contribute “off-the-wall” ideas during a brainstorm, without judgment. But within a corporate setting, presenting an idea that isn’t fully fleshed out can be career suicide. This is just the nature of the beast.

But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone’s “crazy” or even “silly” idea lead to a product breakthrough or game-changing innovation in the market. It is easier to shoot down an idea than it is to build on one.

But for some (if not many) on your team, when the going gets tough, the tough will want to return to the status quo. Your best solution? Distance.

Get outside help when you can. And set up your own internal team in a different location, if possible. Preferably a different zip code.

Also, try to protect your team’s incubation period. Looking at our startup example, we know that it tends to take 2 —3 times longer for a startup team to validate the market than founders originally expect.

Whoa. What will your higher-ups say if it takes your team triple the time predicted to get this new innovation to market? But here’s the bigger problem: out-of-whack expectations can introduce unhealthy pressure to scale prematurely.

So set upper management’s expectations and plans accordingly, and prepare your team for what incubation can look like. Doing these two things will keeping everyone focused on the mission of long-term business success.

Lesson 4: Talk to Customers

“Real customers” most likely do not live or work or shop or do anything in your workspace. So why are you spending all your time there? Even if it is difficult to physically get out there, there are a number of remote tools to leverage.

You must test your hypotheses with real customers. If you’re not already doing this, you will be amazed at how much you learn—and how fast you learn it—when you finally get out there and make this part of your process.

The best time to get concepts and mock-ups in front of customers? Early and often. Why?

  1. You’ll learn what you need to know sooner, which equates to more investment in the right things (and less in the wrong ones).
  2. Your team will have less ownership of the concept, because they have personally invested less in execution, so they will be more open-minded to change.
  3. Your customers’ feedback will be more open and effective—both because users feel more comfortable critiquing unrefined products, and because they can better imagine and suggest solutions when the product under review is more open-ended.

Lesson 5: Pivot like a Ballroom Dancer

Successful teams are pivoting pros. When they realize that their assumptions are wrong, they pivot by radically changing the concept to move in a new, more promising direction.

This can be incredibly difficult for those in large organizations to emulate because the culture rarely favors speed or change. But your small team of innovators can adopt its own, more startup-like personality.

Everything from feature sets, to pricing strategies, to target market offer opportunities to test, measure, and adjust until you dial-in the right combination. Even though you are part of a large organization, you don’t need to box yourself in to the way products have traditionally been built, priced, and sold.

Take the Next Steps to Improving Your Organization’s Innovation Excellence

Accept that you work for a large organization and that its culture is what it is for a reason. (Hey, there are lots of great things about your big company!). In fact, your connections, resources, and pure horsepower can bring revolutionary products and services to the market in an incredibly effective manner.

This power just needs to be harnessed in the right way.

About the Author

Casey Branson – Business Development

“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
-Coco Chanel