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Best Strategies for Managing Innovation in a Big Company

We’re in a unique position as a company. From our beginnings at the incubation center at the Ryerson DMZ, we’ve been very involved in the startup community. The software we build helps some the largest global brands dissolve hierarchy and tap into the insights of their employees. So, when it comes to innovation process and culture, we’re close to how it works at companies large and small.

For sure, managing innovation at a big company is different. While this may be a bit of an over-simplification, we often see three approaches that are successful when they are well executed.

1. Create a startup within

Examples: Google’s X.Company (the moonshot company) | Nespresso (Nestle)

Someone who has personally led product innovation at a startup and a large enterprise is Steve Woods. Steve was the CTO and co-founder of Eloqua that was eventually acquired by Oracle. He worked at Oracle for a few years before moving on to launch a new company, Nudge. In an interview with Steve about disruptive innovation, he talked about the challenges of trying to be disruptive in a large enterprise. Steve believes that for a large enterprise to truly develop disruptive new products, services, business models or routes to market, it needs to create some separation from the main business.

The ‘disruptive’ business must employ different people, operate different budgets, and potentially work in a different building or use different technology stacks. This gives the freedom to try new things and avoid crossover between a proven concept and a new, highly risky, unproven concept. Without strict separation, the oxygen sucking engine that is the successful business will starve the attention and risk tolerance out of the small innovative nugget that is being formed.

2. Have a dedicated team driving innovation across the business

Corporate innovation efforts at large companies often lack a clear mission and framework. To fix this, organizations created teams tasked with leading innovation strategy, culture, and processes. The Chief Innovation Officer was born.

To better understand this role, we talked to Ted Graham who led innovation at PwC for several years about how big companies like PwC can innovate like startups. Here are some of Ted’s key activities to drive success:

  1. Spend the time and energy to determine which problems are best solved using an innovative approach and resist the urge for “we need that too” innovations.
  2. Look outside your organization for inspiration. Ted visited incubation centers, sat in on angel pitches, and set-up one-on-one meetings with venture capitalists to stay on top of trends.
  3. Force yourself to run a pilot at least once a year.
  4. Help key leaders across the organization redefine the paradigm for risk and reward.

3. Make it everyone’s job

While the first two strategies focus on disruptive innovation, the last focuses more on incremental innovation, which is basically just a fancy way to say always keep improving. In our post, “Stop Innovating, Start Getting Stuff Done”, we spell out our belief that execution and a bias toward action at every level of the organization are the powerhouses of progress and performance improvement.

According to “The Idea Drive Organization”, up to 80% of an organization’s potential performance improvement lies in frontline ideas.

The two most common ways to facilitate this are the employee suggestion system and brainstorming. And in both cases, the difference between just doing it and doing it well is massive. Well-run suggestion systems have more than 4 x the adoption of average suggestion systems and many multiples the number of ideas and bottom line impacting innovations. A well-facilitated brainstorming session will produce up to 30x more ideas.

To do it well, organizations need two things. First, a culture where leaders seek employee input. Second, the right technology to help manage the process.

A few things are important in that process:

  • Accountability
  • Feedback Loops w/ Participants
  • Duplicate Ideas Detecting, Filtering, Managing
  • Analytics and Tracking of ROI
best-strategy-quote

Without having the above, you can actually do more harm to your innovation culture at your organization. Employees will start feeling like their ideas don’t matter or that the organization doesn’t care about them. We’ve seen letters of “disengagement” being sent to CEOs after launching campaigns such as the above and not following through.


Which is the right strategy? It depends on many factors. In all likelihood, a combination of these strategies probably makes the most sense. However, we definitely believe that engaging employees to constantly be providing ideas, input and feedback on your key priorities should be part of every organization’s strategy. Not only does it build problem-solving muscle across the entire organization, it increases overall employee engagement. You get innovation, but you also get a more motivated workforce.

About SoapBox

SoapBox Innovations creates software that helps organizations give employees a voice. Whether your focus is on collecting feedback or soliciting ideas, we make it easier to act on employee input that drives real business value.

Harness the power of employee ideas.

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