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  • Writer's pictureSusie Braam

Innovation Labs: Get Out of the Sandpit

When Corporate Innovators Are Their Own Worst Enemy.

Corporate Innovators want to be left alone to play in their sandpit

How impactful is your innovation lab? A number of years ago, when I started as Head of Innovation for a large organisation, I met members of the innovation lab who were excited to tell me about all the innovation activity happening.

But over the course of my first few weeks, I met and spoke to staff across the organisation and got a very different perspective. They agreed the lab was busy, but many complained that it wasn’t working on the stuff that mattered to their business areas and were continually frustrated they couldn’t get the lab’s engagement on the challenges they were facing.

I learned that the lab had over 250 ideas in its innovation pipeline, some of which had been lurking there making limited progress for years. Most of them had no business sponsor or interest.

Members of the innovation lab talked about concepts like customer centricity and experimentation. Yet in reality, they had little engagement with their customers and limited discipline in their approach to running experiments. They were understandably excited by new technologies they saw outside of our sector, but were unable (and to some extent, unwilling) to clearly connect those technologies to problems people cared about.

In their book, Corporate Explorer, Andrew Binns, Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman observe:

Often, deep technical specialists, such as scientists, engineers, and actuaries, get more satisfaction from pushing technical boundaries, than from learning what customers want or value.

This was exactly what I saw playing out. Although the team told me they were frustrated by the lack of senior stakeholder support, they also wanted to be left alone to pursue what interested them. Essentially, they wanted to be left to play in their sandpit.

Diversity and Inclusion in Innovation

Lack of diversity and inclusion was also a problem. As a team, they had developed their own culture that bonded them while excluding nearly everyone else. There were lots of ‘in’ deep techy jokes and a clear disdain for anyone who didn’t demonstrate the technical prowess they did.

They liked to keep their group small and exclusive, they liked to keep their knowledge to themselves. They loved being underground heroes, finding ways around the system, rarely attempting to challenge the system or change it for the benefit of others. If you were a) a woman or b) not a technologist, it was an inhospitable and unapproachable environment. Yet this was the only place to take an idea. It was no wonder the business was floundering.

Diversity and inclusion are essential to innovation. Without it, we don’t hear different voices and perspectives - whether they are the voices and perspectives of our customers and partners or of other people in our organisations. We can’t find new ways of thinking about and solving old problems. If we surround ourselves with people who look, sound and think the same way, we can only produce the same things.

Building in Inclusivity, Transparency and Strategic Alignment

My response was to set about restructuring and repurposing the team from one that was engrossed in innovation activity few cared about, to one that enabled others across the organisation to solve problems, develop new ideas and have impact.

I partnered with a couple of external experts and brought in some new team members. Together, we worked with different business units to align innovation to their strategic outcomes. We helped put structures and processes in place for managing investment in ideas for new value propositions systematically, fairly and transparently. And we rolled out training in innovation methodologies and tools to over 1000 innovators and leaders.

This empowered many others across the organisation and increased the impact of innovation and transformation efforts. But, probably unsurprisingly, made me unpopular with that group of maverick technologists I had started with. In their eyes, by focusing innovation efforts on organisational strategy, I had killed innovation.

Another quote from Corporate Explorer summarises my experience well:

Narrowing the scope of ideation by using hunting zones is controversial for some in the global innovation industry. They argue that any constraints on innovation reduce the diversity of ideas and the potential to make unexpected breakthroughs.

It goes onto say that:

This is one of those areas where what works for an entrepreneur does not transfer to the world of the Corporate Explorer. In the corporate world, innovating without constraint is a recipe for creating zombie businesses disconnected from the strategy that nobody wants to fund.

Exactly the problem I was focussed on solving.

Creating Impactful Innovation Labs

I’m not against innovation labs per se. I believe there absolutely needs to be space for playing and exploration. Especially for more transformative innovation, they are pivotal to providing a safe space in which to explore and create, fail and learn. Certainly, they ought to be central to an organisation’s digital transformation efforts, testing and exploring new solutions and business opportunities enabled by improved technology.

But too often, it’s a small exclusive club that does not represent either the organisation it belongs to or the customers it serves. The innovation lab finds itself sidelined as a result. Sometimes, an ineffective innovation lab is the sum total of a company’s innovation and transformation efforts. When that is the case, it’s pure innovation theatre and an utter waste of money.

If you have, run or work in an innovation lab, ask yourself: What impact is it having? Who’s involved with it? Is it connected to your business and organisational strategy and wider transformation projects? How free are people to think differently and creatively?

If your answers are similar to mine when I started out in that job, it’s time to rethink your approach to innovation. Check out my previous post on how to mature your innovation capability to get some ideas to get you moving in the right direction.


If you’re ready to get serious about innovation, we’d love to help. Learn more about how Yellow Cat Innovation can help you achieve real impact from your innovation initiatives.

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