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Insights from the Australian corporate innovation community

Since March this year, Vibrance has been curating a community of people who attended our Corporate Innovation in Action event. We recently came together in person for an afternoon of storytelling and insight sharing. It was a great chance to build on the connection we established through six months of meeting together online. 

Leading corporate innovation is a very particular and sometimes lonely road to walk, with a unique set of challenges. While everyone emerged from the session inspired and energised about the possibilities that emerged from our conversations, there was also a sense of having just experienced something akin to “Innovators Anonymous” as there were many war stories and moments of vulnerability shared. As I will describe in Part Two of this post, there is a high degree of shared experience and trust amongst the group, which was fundamental to the depth of interaction that occurred.

The format for the day involved six short presentations, after which the group shared questions and perspectives.

While it is never easy to choose just a few highlights, here are some key themes that emerged from each of presentations:

Realising ROI from innovation takes a sustained commitment

Fred Etiemble shared recent experiences working with a client to demonstrate, through rigorous data analysis of historical patterns, that it is only after 5 years of taking a portfolio approach that enough significant winners emerge from the process to make a material impact on company profits. As such, a pattern we see all too often is that innovation programs are axed or paused after a few years when there is a change in leadership or market conditions. Axing innovation programs prematurely completely undermines the benefits of the portfolio approach and destroys the value that would have otherwise been created.

Demonstrate value to attract investment and resources for your innovation program

Penelope Barr reminded us of the reality of working inside large corporations. Her experience in working at a large bank for over a decade was that there was a restructure every year, which had the predictable effect of creating cynicism amongst staff when it came to innovation - why learn something new and take a career risk when the landscape will inevitably change in a year's time? Penelope’s approach in the face of these challenges was to form an initial small team that developed a track record of demonstrating quick and high value wins. This put them into an ideal position to be able to scale up into a much more far reaching and ambitious innovation team once some funding unexpectedly became available.

Think about the end game of your innovation efforts, and the implications 

I shared my experience working in an SME that had a sustained and repeatable approach to building new businesses by incubating startups internally. Apart from the financial return of having some successful exits, there were several other benefits that were generated that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, including providing a growth pathway for certain staff and capability building for the business. However, the reality is those startups that were successfully incubated ended up exiting via acquisition, which meant losing strong talent to the acquiring company. 

Often when we talk about corporate innovation we assume that the new growth engines will stay in house and may become the future core business. But the path is rarely that straightforward. In some cases competitive pressures emerge that force an early exit, or there could be a temptation to take cash off the table when opportunity presents. The tradeoffs of releasing new businesses to acquisition should therefore be acknowledged and considered when starting the innovation journey.

Innovation doesn’t have to equate to invention

Jodie Granger reminded us that significant ROI can be generated by introducing an idea that is new to the organisation, even if its not a brand new idea in the world. While such an initiative might not fall under the category of transformative innovation, meaning that it won’t provide a whole new business model and growth engine, in Jodie’s experience the returns generated played an important role in balancing the overall portfolio of initiatives.

Reposition innovation in an organisation by managing perceptions

David Pountney provided insights from his time leading innovation programs at one of Australia’s largest organisations. By introducing systematic and rigorous analysis of the market opportunity ahead of discovery the innovation team overcame a perception, which is common in many organisations, that innovation is a fluffy process. David also shared his finding that the innovation teams thrived under constraints in respect to having clarity on the strategic playing fields that the organisation was prepared to explore and what constituted long term financial success. Or in the words of Jeff Bezos “Frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”

Not for profit innovation - judo moves to unlock talent

Alex Young showed us how Red Cross America is able leverage international networks to access world class talent for free and tackle complex innovation challenges. They have developed a streamlined process to digitally advertise for the capabilities that they need, and to make it easy for people to volunteer their time.

It feels like we have only just scratched the surface in terms of the depths of insights and topics that this community has to offer. In 2024 we're looking forward to collectively exploring what needs to change in the Corporate Innovation landscape in Australia to realise different outcomes, if you would like to be part of that discussion please reach out, we'd love to welcome you.

This post is Part One of a two part series. Part Two, which you can read here, is the “prequel”, that describes how this community initially formed and has become a space for the sharing of ideas and insights.


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