Innovating Like A Startup (When You're Not in a Startup.)

by Tim Metzner

If you’ve ever come up with an innovative idea working inside a larger company, you’ve likely faced the frustrations of silos, redundant processes, and confusing governance policies in your efforts to bring the idea to life. It’s not that your company is against innovation; it’s likely they’re investing heavily in “innovation efforts” (maybe “innovation” is one of the core values in your company handbook, or maybe you even have an awards program for successful innovators). And maybe you’re seeing some fruits of those efforts—there’s no shortage of great ideas! Yet, no one ever seems to be able to get budget for anything innovative, edgy, or disruptive to actually happen. The company, as much as it wants to, can’t get out of its own way. So, another quarter of pivot tables and pretty PowerPoint presentations on the latest innovation initiative goes by with no real action being taken.

If you’re ready to get to work (even if it means getting your hands dirty), we want to help! From our experience working in and alongside enterprises, we’re launching a series that aims to break down the behemoth of innovation into actionable steps that you, an individual, can begin taking today. Because of the nature of our work, the series will be geared towards proposing and building a digital solution, but the principles of each step can be applied to any innovation effort.

This isn’t a list of “corporate hacks” that will magically change your department’s productivity levels. No, hard work is very much required at every step. But you wanted to start the hard work yesterday! So let this series serve as a guide for your next steps, a reference for when you feel like you’ve reached a dead end, and inspiration that you really can do this.

Below are summaries of the blog posts we will release each week, over the next several weeks.

Step 1. Find and align yourself with as many like-minded coworkers as possible.

Despite how you feel, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not alone. Your first step is to learn about other efforts being made on this front. There is power in numbers. Hopefully, you find some folks who are well respected, have some influence, or at least already have an audience; all of which can be beneficial to you if you’re working together.

Step 2. Move from general “innovation goals” to solving specific problems.

All senior leaders want to have a line of sight to ROI, so finding, understanding, and proposing solutions to existing problems that will either directly cut costs or make the company money is usually a necessary step in the path to getting a budget.

To be honest, this usually takes longer and is harder than most people expect, which is why many fall short of getting to a place where a real problem (that needs a solution) has been thought out, and a solution has been proposed and validated. Also, depending on how much flexibility you have in your current role, this may require some “nights and weekends” time initially. There is a lot of thinking and detail that goes into this that we’ll dive into in the following posts over the next few weeks.

Step 3. Define what you believe the smallest possible version of a solution could look like.

What are the most critical assumptions (I call them the “death threats”) in your model that need to be tested or proven in order for this to be a success? Once you’ve identified these with your team, you’ll want to build a minimum viable product (MVP) that is able to test and solve these death threats.

Step 4. Figure out exactly what it is your asking. (Pitch like a startup.)

Based on this work, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of budget will be necessary to take the next steps.What is your ask? How much time, money, resources do you need to take the next step? You should know how you’ll use those resources, and what the outcome will be (hint: this should get you to a point where you either kill the project because it’s invalidated or unlock more budget to continue down the path).

Step 5. Figure out exactly who you’re asking.

Do our homework to fully understand who has to say “yes,” and who is most likely to say “yes,” for your project to get the green light. Who has budget authority and who might get excited about the project? (i.e. try to cherry pick a leader with budget authority who would be just as excited as you to see this come to life).

NOTE: You need someone who will not only give you budget, but also permission to fail. You need to be able to (as quickly as possible) kill ideas that should die, instead of trying to force them into success.

Step 6. Build an awesome (cross-functional) team around your project.

You know exactly what you need to build, so now assemble the dream team. To do this, ask questions like: What are the critical skills necessary to bring this to life? What are my gaps or blind spots that could jeopardize the project? Who has an interest in innovative, disruptive work? Who do I want to be in the trenches with (i.e. if there are going to be some late nights and weekends, who do I want to be spending that time with)? Who has a track record of being a great team player and getting stuff done? Who is already well respected?

Step 7. Execute the MVP as quickly as possible.

Start testing, learning and iterating as you’re learning. Spoiler Alert: you’re wrong about something (maybe lots of things), so the name of the game here is to give yourself enough “at bats” to finally get on base and get to the next phase.

Step 8. Fail fast.

If it looks like some of your death threats could be real (not just threats), you want to learn this as quickly as possible. Basically, make this learning as cheap as you can, and then make sure you highlight the learning and suggest next steps. You may learn that the timing is wrong, the problem isn’t as real as you thought, or that the problem exists, but that you have the wrong solution.

NOTE: You should be documenting everything along the way. This is useful from the beginning, but here is where it gets really important. Assume you’re a startup that will need to keep investors up to date all along the way; you need to show progress, learnings, how you’re iterating etc. At the end of the day, if successful, you want to build an incredible case study for not just the project (the problem you solved) and how it makes or saves the company money, you also want to have a blueprint that others can use. Having a model for how you did it could make it infinitely easier for the next initiative to get budget.

Step 9. Showcase your project and find an opportunity to do in again.

Make sure you take every opportunity to talk about what you learned, how you did it, and share the success.

If you get a few wins under your belt you may even eventually have an opportunity to build a team that does this full time across the company, or at least make it a lot easier for others to get budget for similar work.

We’re excited you’ve got a passion for problem-solving.

Don't miss a step!

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