Innovating – doing something different that creates value – is hard.

Innovating within a large organization can feel impossible.

In my work with corporate innovators, we always start with great optimism that this time will be different, this time innovation will stick and become the engine that drives lasting growth.

Within weeks, sometimes days, however, we start to be “loved to death,” a practice that takes one of two forms:

  • The Protector who says, “That’s not how we do things and, if you insist on doing things that way, you’ll get shut down.  Instead, do things this way”
  • The Enthusiast who exclaims, “This is amazing!  I would love to be involved.  And you should share what you’re doing with this person, and definitely tap into this other person’s experience, and I know this third person will want to be involved, and you definitely must talk to….”

Neither mean harm.  In fact, they’re trying to help, but if intrapreneurs aren’t careful, The Protector will edit their work into something that is neither different nor value creating, and The Enthusiast will suffocate them with meetings.

4 More Innovation Derailers

Being “loved to death,” is just one of ways I’ve seen corporate innovation efforts get derailed.  Here are the others:

Performances for senior executives.  Yes, it’s important to meet regularly with senior leaders to keep them apprised of progress, learnings, results, and next steps. But there’s a fine line between updating executives because they’re investors and conference room performances to show off shiny objects and excite executives.  It takes time for innovation teams to prepare for meetings (one team I worked with spent over 100 hours preparing for a meeting) which is time they aren’t spending working, learning, and making progress.

Vanity metrics that that feel good.  There are well-established metrics of success for existing businesses, but there is no commonly accepted set of innovation metrics because innovation evolves too rapidly and is pursued for countless reasons.  As a result, Intrapreneurs are tempted to “game the system” and measure things like site visits and NPS that make executives feel good, but which don’t measure the viability of the innovation in the market.

Inviting everyone to everything.  Transparent communication is important in all aspects of business, not just innovation.  But just as established businesses choose when, how, and with whom to be transparent so too must corporate innovators.  For example, one 100+ person accelerator invited everyone to every meeting and treated all comments as equally important.  While this may look and feel egalitarian, it paralyzed teams because they had to respond to every comment, test every suggestion, and defend every decision.

Basing incentives only on the core business’ performance.  Despite the mantra to “act like a VC,” it isn’t practical for large organizations to incentivize innovation teams the same way VCs incentivize their staffs or portfolio companies.  But the other extreme – using the same incentives with both core business and innovation teams – is equally damaging because it results in the pursuit of “safe” projects and demoralizes intrapreneurs.

As common as these 5 innovation derailers are, they are also easily overcome:

QMWD meetings.  Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly, Daily (QMWD) is an incredibly effective planning framework I often use with clients.  Here’s how it works:

  • Schedule one leadership meeting per Quarter and one per Month.
  • Create templates so that teams can quickly fill in blanks, instead of creating presentations from scratch
  • Monitor time spent preparing for meetings.  If more than one Week (appx 40 hours) is spent preparing for a Quarterly meeting and/or more than one Day (8 hours) is spent preparing for a Monthly meeting, revise the templates, process, and expectations

Evolve what you measure when.  According to research by CB Insights, the top two reasons start-ups fail is no market need and they ran out of cash. To avoid this fate, intrapreneurs should always measure desirability, feasibility, and viability and change shift of the three is most important based on where the innovation is in its lifecycle.  For example, early innovation metrics should focus on whether there is a need and whether the innovation satisfies it (desirability).  As confidence about desirability grows, metrics should shift to focus on the whether the innovation can be made and delivered in a financially attractive way (feasibility) and whether the customer is willing to pay (viability).

Use transparency to build support and let experience drive progress.  Innovation teams need to share their learnings with other teams, and they need to be open to feedback and suggestions.  Create a specific time and place for that to happen.  For example, one of my clients hosts a monthly Lunch & Learn for teams to discuss projects.  Outside of that dedicated time, however, empower innovation teams to move quickly because they are closest to the market.

Base incentives on the core business and innovation objectives.  It’s important to foster a mentality that “we’re all in this together” amongst core and innovation teams, which is why rewarding intrapreneurs on some elements of the core business’ performance is essential.  However, intrapreneurs are not working on the core business and, as a result, their incentives should also reflect what they are working on.  Like innovation metrics, there’s no common standard for innovation incentives which is why I encourage my clients to base innovation teams’ incentives on their objectives for the year and to adjust, even fundamentally change, incentives as objectives shift.

Say “Thank You” and move on.  As the Protector and the Enthusiast give advice and make connections, remember that they are trying to help, so write down what they say and respond with a genuine “thank you.”  Then decide what will be helpful, do it, and ignore the rest.  If they follow-up, have another conversation but odds are they won’t because their focus has shifted.

Lots of things derail innovation but, with a little planning and commitment, it’s possible to stay on track and do the “impossible” – innovate in a large organization.

Originally published as “Four Actions that Derail Innovation (And What To Do Instead)” on July 7, 2020 at