How to run a successful innovation lab
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I challenge you to find a set of company values that doesn’t include either the word “innovate” or a synonym of it.
Every company wants to be perceived as cutting-edge, capable of meeting their customers’ needs before they even know what they want.
But how many companies are truly innovative?
In startups, thinking entrepreneurially is part of everyone’s job spec. The company is small enough for everyone to be close to the founders, who usually want to get the whole company involved in improving the way the business operates. As the challengers, the underdogs up against the major players, startups are driven to take risks and continuously generate new ideas. But at scale, innovation usually falls to the people responsible for specific “innovative” projects or those working in R&D. In other words, there is a monopoly on who and where new ideas come from.
Here’s the problem. If, as is often the case, it’s front-line staff who are the first to spot new opportunities, then shouldn’t they be involved in defining the company’s innovation agenda? If you want your organisation to generate truly innovative ideas and drive real business change, you need to empower every employee, across all levels and grades, to share ideas and champion innovation. But it’s not simply a case of everyone having the right to innovate. Rather, innovation must be recognised as everyone’s responsibility.
So, what’s the answer? Intrapreneurship may sound familiar – the term was coined in the 70s – but, almost 40 years on, it’s still far from common practice.
Put simply, intrapreneurship refers to the entrepreneurial behaviour of employees within their organisation. It is achieved when employees are encouraged to look beyond the day-to-day, when they have the opportunity to learn new skills, and when they are given the time and space to experiment – which is probably why intrapreneurship hasn’t caught on like “innovation strategy” or “R&D” have.
For many managers, it may seem like they’re being asked to give their team permission to lose focus on the “day job.” They may even feel like they’re encouraging traits that will make people want to leave the company. But rather than giving employees the impetus to leave, an intrapreneurship programme like the 0–>1 Challenge, which L Marks developed and ran in collaboration with Sumitomo Corporation Europe Ltd. and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas, is an initiative that will make them stay – and not simply because of the learning and development opportunities on offer. An intrapreneurship programme empowers and equips employees to shape the future of the organisation; it is an invitation to make an impact, and a challenge to the monopoly on innovation. Moreover, as they draw on their unique understanding and expertise to identify ways to improve their own and customers’ experience, intrapreneurs are in fact more focused on the day-to-day.
Of course, it takes more than encouraging people to come up with ideas and filling walls with post-it notes to build a culture of intrapreneurship. Ideas need to be developed, brought to life, refined and, finally, implemented within the business, and there’s no silver bullet for that. Still, a structured intrapreneurship programme, which provides the tools for employees to articulate and develop their ideas, is a good place to start. For it to succeed, the programme must have the full and vocal support of senior leadership; it should include tech scouting and embed startup solutions; and it should both champion and facilitate co-creation with third parties, including R&D centres. With these elements in place, intrapreneurship will take hold. The monopoly on innovation will be devolved – for the benefit of employees, customers and the entire business.
If you’re still sceptical, here’s what they have to gain from overcoming resistance and launching an intrapreneurship programme:
When front-line employees are involved in an intrapreneurship programme, they draw on their on-the-ground experience and interactions with customers to spot opportunities for improvement and innovation. This “bottom-up innovation” is proven to generate products and services that satisfy unmet needs and, therefore, increase the company’s revenues.
Intrapreneurs work at all levels of the business. Whilst they’re doing their day jobs, they see how systems, processes and customer experiences could be improved. Given the skills, training and remit to behave in an entrepreneurial way, they will be motivated to make systems and processes more efficient, minimising waste and improving the customer experience.
The importance of releasing new products or services for customers at an ever-faster pace cannot be overstated. Typically, it takes 1-2 years to take an idea through to product launch in a large corporate. Participants on intrapreneurship programmes develop ideas into trial-tested prototypes in just 16 weeks, significantly cutting down time to market.
As a culture of intrapreneurship spreads across an organisation, the number of innovative projects underway in the company will increase. Every new efficiency, improvement or service makes an impact and fuels business transformation, which in turn enables the company to outperform competitors.
The aim of an intrapreneurship programme is to produce a class of innovation champions and grow a “culture of innovation.” Intrapreneurs attract and form engaged and productive teams, and they encourage and develop other employees, allowing the entrepreneurial mindset and approach to spread. In other words, intrapreneurs become agents of change.
Empowered and equipped to shape the future of their organisation, intrapreneurs are more invested in their company and its success. The “culture of innovation” that intrapreneurship produces similarly attracts high-performers from outside the business – people who thrive in a fast-moving, forward-thinking and environment and are motivated to make an impact.
And if you’re still not sold… It’s a reality that most companies will at some point face a “Kodak moment” when it’ll become clear that they need to do something radical to continue to grow – or even survive. Wouldn’t it be better if your entire workforce was ready to rise to the occasion?
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