Lessons from an innovation expert

Updated: Apr 19

A little over 20 years ago, I learned how to write commands on a DOS operating system. Today I am curious to see when the Neuralink technology will mature, so that I can control my computer with nothing but brainpower. Technology evolves, and so do the organizations we work for. In this world of change, I have had the privilege to grow as an innovation specialist since the very start of my career. Today, I take a moment to reflect and share some of my personal lessons with you.

1. Build knowledge on the domain in which you want to innovate.

Paul Graham once wrote that all great ideas are born at ‘the leading-edge of a fast-moving domain’. So lesson number one for all companies who want to innovate is to make sure that they are at the leading edge of such a domain.

To get there, you can do three things:

a. get better at leveraging the knowledge of your organization and its collective intelligence;

b. hire the best talent and hack your way into the new domain;

c. co-create with outside experts to shape the big picture first, and then choose the domain in which you will innovate.

2. Every company is unique.

There’s a huge difference in the challenges faced by established corporates versus fast-growing technology companies.

Corporates are confronted with too little innovations that reach the hands of paying customers, fast-growing companies with too many new ideas but no priorities. Innovation management however, is equally critical for both. Some companies cannot find, shape or share ideas. Other companies are not really good at ‘doing things small’, and do not test before they invest. Others do not know how to do marketing or sales in the digital market. The thing is, every company is unique. Not alone in terms of culture, also with regards to talent, business models, industry, supply chains, and time-to-market. Whatever all the books and canvasses say: there is no single best practice to do innovation. That’s why it is wise to invest in developing your own custom innovation management process, and make it easier for your team and network to make new ideas happen.

3. Have the right innovation meetings.

In big companies, everybody is focused on operating the day-to-day business - this ‘whirlwind’ of responsibilities sometimes makes it hard to step out and explore new horizons. That is why corporate innovators do well to invest in having meetings to talk about nothing else but new ideas, technologies, ways of working and trends outside of their sector. The best output of such a series of meetings is a periodic ‘vision report’. The next step is to create an environment that allows action on that inspiration, igniting teams to work on new ideas, outside of the whirlwind.

Small companies on the other hand, have the tendency to live too much in the future and pursue too many ideas, so they do well to design operational processes and focus on priorities. That is why scale-up founders and CEO’s do well to invest in meetings where they talk about nothing else but processes, projects and responsibilities. The best output of such a meeting is a clear roadmap to bridge strategy and development. The next step is to follow up on the decisions that were made through a solid management process.

When you are growing fast, focus is key.

4. Staying relevant means staying ahead of the curve.

Many thought leaders have written about ‘staying relevant’, yet this has a very different meaning for corporates versus scale-ups. In Carlota Perez’ book on the S-curve of technological revolutions, the author identified different stages of innovation:

Corporates have per definition reached maturity within their market and can therefore innovate on three fronts:

a. either they introduce incremental improvements

b. they explore adjacent innovations.

c. they scout for disruptive innovations.

Startups and scale-ups are born on the left-hand bottom of the S-curve, and all innovation efforts should be targeted at climbing that one curve. That is why fast-growing companies do not face three kinds of possible innovations: to them there is only one: Improving the core business and racing towards the next stage of maturity. Their innovation has to allow them to go faster than the competition. In strategic management there are three things that can deliver a competitive advantage: cost, quality or network. The vision and the mission as set out by the founders and CEO should facilitate all decisions to lead to that point.

5. How to work with an innovation expert. 

If you decide that many of these topics are relevant to you, and if you are curious to understand the added value of working with an outside innovation expert, there are different ways of working with them.

Some companies choose to work on a project-basis. Innovation consultants are not always proponents of long-term project management schemes but prefer to work in sprints. During a sprint you go from challenge to verified solution in a period of 5 days. This is a great method if you have a specific question (or domain) in mind and want to get results fast.

Other companies that are facing longer-term strategic questions choose to work with innovation experts on a periodic basis. By inviting outside expertise to your innovation meetings, you gain access to a full body of knowledge, methods and advice which you can apply across your organization.

Innovation specialists tend to be experts in funding as well. They should be knowledgeable in corporate venture capital, VC, angel investing, subsidies and all kinds of consortia which you can apply for with particular projects. Hence, funding projects are another way of working with an innovation consultant, which is especially interesting for smaller companies. 

In this post I covered a little bit of theory and connected it with practical insights based on my experience in working with corporates and scale-ups for almost 15 years. If you are interested to learn more, get in touch!