REFRAME: 7 Make or Break Skills for Successful Innovation Teams

Innovation Strategy

Here’s my hot take: Trying to bring something new into the world as an entrepreneur is really hard, but trying to innovate as an intrapreneur is even harder. Why's that? I'll tell you.

Something I don’t think is talked about enough is the emotional investment required to innovate. It takes an inordinate amount of work to go from 0 to 1 and for those used to typical corporate pace can be quite the shock to the senses. The entrepreneur has to face the market and investors and both of those can bombard your emotional state. Intrapreneurs wage war on those two fronts too, AND they have to run the gauntlet of various corporate antibodies that sees anything different as a threat. One has to be extremely resilient, and resourceful, to navigate that.

Furthermore, my sense is that the conversation around innovation too often focuses on those many blockers and risks but not on the skills needed to deliver on innovation successfully; the capabilities that allow you to navigate around and through those obstacles. Maybe it seems obvious… You have to learn! Then do! You have to be creative! You have to be determined! Just get to it! All true, though it hardly lays out a path to follow. It can be particularly tough when some characteristics of the core business backing the innovation effort are at odds with innovation itself. The others, while not overtly in opposition, can actually be misleadingly similar, and one could over-rely on them slowing or even stopping progress.

So, here’s a take at the foundational fundamentals and when to lean in and when to work around. Your team must have…

1. Research

This often competes with entrenched definitions of what research is. This takes research to the broadest definition possible. It is customer-centered research that ENGAGES (i.e. more than surveys and focus groups), experiments and iterates. Very different from the research most orgs already do – segmenting their existing customers, surveying their best sales accounts, validating modest improvements to existing offerings with those who know the core best. This has to be research with intent, flowing seamlessly from validating under-served jobs-to-be-done into testing possibilities and then testing prototypes. It is having people put in the effort to recycle that sustainable product (as we did with Nike), not just asking them if they would recycle it, because that gives the behavioral evidence we need to feel confident moving forward into the unknown. It is expansive, rigorous experimentation.  

2. Execution

This can be misleading in a similar way. Scaled entities know how to execute. But execute truly new things?... Not so much. This requires polymathic entrepreneurial capabilities – to assemble, organize, strategize, to be scrappy yet to contextualize for the core business, to be able to set up to receive on the other end. This is orchestration and creative execution. It is product management, and design, and marketing, and development, all bundled into one role whose description will change daily if not hourly. This is not the long-term view of the routinized corporate job, this is near-term obsessed intrapreneurship.

Again with Nike, when we started to see if we could acquire our target customers, we experienced a great tension between the 24/7 requirements to pound pavement to get to where those customers were to knock on their doors – it ran into conflict with the 9-5 reality that much of the core team had lived in for so long. It’s not that they weren’t up for it, they were (and impressively so at that), it’s that the delta between the status quo and the requisite founders effort from the core team was SO immense. Any amount of “I’d rather not” could have put us into a stall. I can’t speak highly enough of that Nike team for leaning into that burden rather than shying away from it, and I’ll note that they’re quite unique in pulling that off.

3. Flexibility and 4. Resilience

A successful entrepreneur is one who has navigated a number of pivots, often changing the molecular structure of their solution to better address a customer problem. This is easier said than done. Doing this just once is hard, and doing it over and over requires a durability, humility, and clear-eyed sense that the market will ultimately pick the winners and that your brain alone isn’t enough to invent a winner. In other words, it’s about the process you run an idea through more so than the idea itself. This comes down to discipline.

Our Nike team was disciplined in carrying multiple solutions forward and holding them loosely, focused on the key value-drivers (the elements that serve genuine customer problems) and not on which solution bundle they thought was going to win the day. Pairing that discipline with the insights engine above (see Research) meant there was a virtuous feedback loop that kept us moving forward even as our solution was evolving. In so doing, our team was gaining confidence, not just putting blind faith in a singular idea or the process.

5. Autonomy

This is all about permissions, which for innovation success has to run differently from the classic chain of command, hierarchical management system of the core business, with less reactive oversight, more forward looking guidance and air cover. Innovation teams need to retain most (not all) decision-rights so they can move at pace, as speed is both an advantage and healthy constraint. With decision rights, not only is a team more motivated (controlling their own destiny) they are more likely to make the hard decisions instead of skewing toward irrational optimism, which happens when they think they need to correct for a negativity bias of an episodically engaged managerial decision maker.

Where does decision guidance need to come in for this to really work? At the strategy level. If what the innovation team is exploring is untethered from strategy, it is likely unsellable, which means it should have been uninvestable from the outset. Too often innovation teams get a risk carte blanche which comes with a hall pass on strategic fit too. This is dangerous! When working with Nike, we helped them set strategic guideposts and guardrails and then let the team navigate between them autonomously, letting them know if they’ve wandered out of bounds in the exploration process. This serves as gentle, reinforcing support, versus what can feel like forceful manipulation if the management hand comes in fast and hard.  

6. Money

This is a tricky one. While never in infinite supply, capital is more readily available to the corporate innovator than to the entrepreneur. That said, capital, especially risk capital, is often deployed very reluctantly within scaled organizations, held up to an outdated scorecard (based on historical successes) and dripped to an initiative as a “budget” rather than a committed investment de-risked by strategically set tripwires. The successful innovator needs to treat this resource as constrained even if it is actually quite easily won, and the sponsors need to operate like the best forward-looking investors rather than near-sighted managers of a budget.

At Nike, they managed innovation investments via a growth board, which was not the executive team known by a different name – it even included some non-Nike folks. This was a healthy practice both for investment decision-making and for the team, who had to develop and flex the entrepreneurial fundraising muscle, which ultimately strengthened the decision-making of Nike founders and their teams.

7. Enthusiasm

Passion has to be anchored on a problem, not a solution. The latter is too brittle, too likely to need to change drastically. A compelling problem, it changes only for the better, which tends to strengthen the bonds with the pursuant problem-solver. In corporate innovation, there are market problems AND business problems to be solved, and you have to wield enthusiasm for both in equal enough measure, otherwise the one only passionate for the market problem burns out with exasperation – “they just don’t get it” – and the one only passionate for the core business is too ready to default back to the status quo.

At Nike, the business problems were big and broad which left a lot of latitude for us to find consumer problems with linkages to the business problem spaces. We also kept multiple solutions alive in parallel, which helped us keep our eyes on the prize and took pressure off of one having to be a winner. Ultimately, managing the team's energy is critical, as this innovation work demands a lot of energy and if it doesn’t return it at least in equal measure it is unsustainable.

In Summary…

Wielding these seven corporate innovation capabilities in these nuanced ways REFRAMEs (see the acronym from 1-7 above…) that innovation isn’t an arena in which you can piecemeal together a team with the execution parts of one person and the research parts of another and so on. Rather, innovation requires not only a distinct skillset, but one that has to be put into practice quite differently from how those same skills might get deployed in service to the core business. Further, it requires consideration of the emotional side of the work too, one that can in equal measure wield empathy for the core business and appreciate the resolve of the intrapreneur. This does not mean you need a separate culture; ultimately it’s a different approach to the same end – serve the core business – and the overall management of innovation needs to consider these differences and act accordingly in service to the very different process of realizing growth (vs sustaining scale).  


Clay Maxwell

Managing Partner

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