Innovation: living in an Instagram world based on pats on the back

Corporates and startups are entirely different beasts. On the one hand established and trusted,  with huge data reserves, customer bases and distribution networks. On the other, innovative, forward-thinking, and equipped with an attacker mindset, innovative business models and emerging technology. In the wrong context, the two beasts may make for awkward bedfellows. But a marriage of the two worlds has the potential to result in game-changing ventures. 

Frustratingly, too often this potential remains unfulfilled.

Why is it that efforts by corporates to innovate by creating labs, attempting startup collaboration or to embed startup culture within their organisation have resulted in little impact, and huge lost investments in terms of time, effort and of course cost?

Why is it that the practice of innovation - in my mind just a synonym for future growth strategy - has spawned an industry of its own, awash with buzzwords but light on commercial impact. To quote one corporate intrapreneur who recently turned to me in exasperation: “innovation is such a pat on the back industry and that comes through.”

It’s a pat on the back for that new innovation lab, and a pat on the back for the startup pitches that you organised. It’s a pat on the back for the design thinking workshop that got your corporate finance team out of their suits for the day, and a pat on the back for the internal incubator. It’s a pat on the back for your lean canvas, your flipcharts, and for every post-it note that you can cram on the wall. It’s a pat on the back for agile, for fail fast, and for MVP. And since all of this back-patting feels so good, how about one more for blowing that innovation budget on CVC.

With this as the context, there’s only one conclusion: we’re playing at innovation, and treating self-congratulatory pats on the back as though they are likes on Instagram.

But in a world where growth is judged by commercial impact and our old friends Dollar and Cent, the reality is that none of this means anything if there are no demonstrable results. At some point the music stops, and you’ve got to explain to the board what the commercial impact of all of this has been. Best case scenario, you’ll be left to clear up the mess that you helped create. Worst case scenario, you’ll be tossed out of the lab like those forgotten flipcharts from the design thinking workshop.

Ultimately, your innovation initiatives will be judged on business outcomes, and all of those Instagram likes are pretty useless if you’ve got no mates in the real world.

Enough pats on the back. It’s time to deal in commercial impact.

By Samuel Hall

Managing Director, ASEAN

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