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  • Kate Ainscough

10 Hard Truths About Corporate Innovation Teams


1. We don’t always follow the data

When running innovation experiments we set a hypothesis to test, i.e. we believe students prefer cycling to University and their major frustration is access to bicycles and safe storage. We can run discovery interviews to test this hypothesis but at some point you’ll have to take a leap of faith, develop a solution and test it. Sometimes innovation is about trusting your gut and going with it.


2. There are no entrepreneurs in your business

The very nature of a corporate business means there are very few frustrated entrepreneurs sitting quietly waiting to be discovered and recruited into your innovation team. But there may be individuals who are running a side hustle as well as their day job, e.g. selling vinyl on eBay or running an Airbnb. Although you can’t teach an entrepreneurial mindset, you can teach methods and frameworks to de-risk business ideas. For example, The Design Sprint from Google Ventures is a great way to test new business ideas in just five days.


3. It’s uncomfortable talking and listening to your customers

Traditionally, corporates have employed market research agencies to engage directly with their customers, while sitting behind the glass and then digested the resulting PowerPoint and Excel. To truly empathise with your customers and understand their biggest pain points you need to engage directly and face to face. Although this is not selling; it’s just a conversation, it can feel very uncomfortable.


4. Talented people get poached

When building a team you’ll spend a significant amount of time and investment in upskilling and training people. At the very point these individuals are at the height of their powers they will be recruited back to the main business, usually to work on a high-profile strategic project with an accompanying pay rise. However, frustrating as this maybe, you have to accept part of your role is to provide talent for the main business and to develop a network of warm recruitment prospects.


5. We favour pilots over experimentation

We run innovation experiments to test our riskiest assumptions as quickly as possible, to maximise our learnings with minimal spend. For example, simple landing page tools like Instapage and Unbounce have made it easier to test if your value proposition resonates with your chosen customer segment. However, corporates are still investing and running small scale pilots which are expensive and slow.


6.Linear projects are easier than following an iterative approach

Innovation experiments are based around an iterative loop of ‘build – measure – learn’ as opposed to the majority of corporate projects which follow a linear approach and lend themselves to a beautifully presented Gantt chart. It can be unnerving not knowing what your final destination looks like and incredibly frustrating to go around the loop again when you learn something which changes your original assumption. The iterative approach is not for everyone and that’s OK.


7.We prioritise perfection over validated learning and speed

When working on innovation projects our goal is validated learning not perfection. It’s important to remember that ‘good enough is good enough’. For example, we do not need to agonise for hours over the design of a landing page if its good enough to communicate our value proposition then it’s good enough to launch. As we go around the ‘build – measure – learn’ loop we can ensure version 2 of the landing page is improved but this is based on data. This allows us to test in a matter of days rather than months.


8.Innovation tools look easy but are difficult to use well

The Value Proposition Canvas and Business Model Canvas are key tools in any innovation toolbox and they look deceptively easy to use. For example, the business model canvas is just nine boxes and if you put a Post-it note in each box then you’ve got a working business model right. Correct? Sadly not. What you have got is a bunch of guesses which need validating. The important thing to remember is your business model canvas is your best guess right now and should be constantly changing as you validate your learning.


9. Innovation teams have a short life span

Start-up businesses can toil away for several years not making profit. For example, it took Twitter twelve years to make its first quarterly profit. Corporate innovation teams quite simply will not have this long and a change in strategy or a change in leadership at the top means teams can be closed down effectively overnight.


10. Not all Post-it notes are created equal

Sadly, you get what you pay for when it comes to Post-it notes. Do not be tempted to go for the cheaper ones unless you like playing the confetti game when all your Post-it notes fall off the wall at once.



Always interested to hear about other peoples experience of driving innovation in corporate environments, if you would like to share some war stories then please get in touch at hello@freestyleinnovation.co.uk.