Innovate For Impact: Blueprint For Corporate Innovation Centers
CTO at Wipro Limited, looking after the emerging technology research and incubation for Wipro globally.
In these times of unprecedented challenges, breakthrough innovations are key to our survival. As businesses also recognize that innovations can make or break them, many are operationalizing innovation by investing in ecosystems dedicated to incubating emerging technologies to unlock new opportunities.
Today, hundreds of such hubs dot the corporate landscape, rolled out by deep-pocketed brands across diverse industries — from automotive manufacturing to financial services. A few in-house labs have opened this year with more expected later: Cisco’s first European cybersecurity innovation center launched in January, while food giant Conagra announced that its innovation center in Chicago would be unveiled later this year.
Given the sizable investments required to operate an in-house lab, it’s important to get the innovation initiatives on the right track. With so much at stake, how can we optimize the success factors to achieve a strong return on innovation?
Set Goals And KPIs
Start by clearly identifying your innovation center’s strategic goals. This exercise will inform everything from how you measure the success of your innovation efforts to how to staff your team. The KPIs for these goals could be a combination of activity and business metrics.
For example, if one of your goals is to deliver incremental innovation to all of your enterprise customers, a relevant engagement index with clients should make a good KPI. If one of the objectives is to introduce and scale up a new offering, then some lead indicators for adoption or time to minimum viable product could be a good milestone. If one of your goals is to engage the brain trusts at startups, academia and other partners to deploy new solutions, then the number of joint prototypes or deployments could be a success metric.
Establishing Innovation Centers
Your plan may also include physical workspaces to house a dedicated practice for developing innovation. Within these centers of excellence, you can build the infrastructure for rapid experimentation and gain insights from end consumers.
These centers can host the requisite hardware, networks and software along with the partners and people with the necessary skills to rapidly assemble innovations and demonstrate them to clients. They can also have the environment for ideation sessions to enable customer cocreation and reimagine processes with these innovations.
Managing The Innovation Process
What is the life cycle of the innovations your organization is building, and how will you manage the process from concept to commercialization?
Let’s look at innovations in digital technology domain. The life cycle driving this type of innovation pipeline might start at a lab where researchers identify new ideas, and the most promising of these would undergo engineering. At a design studio, you marry what has been engineered with a business problem, leading to a proof of concept. You then create a prototype that is shared internally with teams in the core business to help identify any improvement opportunities before demoing to customers and partners.
Stitching together these multiple competencies spanning research lab, design, application and experience requires artful orchestration. The key is to develop sustainable innovation processes and protocols. For each phase of the innovation life cycle, establish a set of standards and evaluation criteria with approvers at various go or no-go decision points. Setting these criteria is not a one-time exercise; you will almost certainly evolve and tweak them over time. The key is to continuously adapt based on what has worked and your team’s collective learnings.
Culture also matters. While the staff understands the broader mandate, team leaders must create a culture that breeds success. This means instituting the right organization structure with possibly fewer hierarchies to minimize red tape and friction. Encourage activities like experimentation, learning and collaboration to catalyze cross-pollination. Diverse teams from research to design can link arms to brainstorm and share knowledge and insight. At the same time, leverage expertise from outside of the organization to inject new blood and preempt insular thinking. To create a community of external collaborators, consider programs like quarterly hackathons with partners and customers and ink partnerships with research and academic institutions.
Staying Close To The Mothership
The governance of innovation centers is tricky business. Tasked with creating breakthroughs for the future, they operate on long-term horizons and are disengaged from the near-term priorities of the core business. Yet it’s important for these independently operated hubs to integrate their objectives with the rest of the business in the name of alignment and relevance.
The key is to strike a balance between autonomy and integration. This can be achieved by engaging your key internal stakeholders:
• Sustain buy-in from the highest level of management. Continuously engage senior leaders, briefing them at a regular cadence with highlights of the team’s innovation efforts and KPIs.
• Engage with profit and loss teams. With support from the top, you’ll be well-positioned to build strong relationships with client-facing and partner-facing teams. These types of interactions are necessary for building and commercializing relevant innovations. By collaborating with P&L stakeholders, you gain a valuable partner who can help in the early stages to evaluate a project’s business potential and in the mature stages to sponsor their go-to-market.
• Connect your goals to revenue. Innovation hubs with a multiyear operating record can review revenues generated by in-market launches. Younger organizations can start tracking live deployments as a percentage of total projects in their portfolio. The sooner you can get a handle on your revenue, the more you’ll be able to justify your existence.
At the end of the day, people build innovations. To ensure the probability of success, the ecosystem for bringing new solutions to market must have the right leadership to steer the ship. These leaders must build a nimble organization and create the right culture to develop and mobilize talent while maintaining a shared goal with the core business.
A multimillion-dollar glitzy innovation lab may not be the right investment for every company even though it creates beautiful theater. There’s more than one path to innovation, and the ones who succeed are those who know how to lead and steer innovation with agility.
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