Can Innovation Thrive Under The Radar In Your Company?
A lot of intrapreneurs ask me whether they should consider working on their ideas under the radar within their company. They are often worried that if they expose their innovative ideas to the company too soon, those ideas will be killed by corporate antibodies. This is not an irrational fear. It is often based on previous experiences.
Although the premise is valid, I am not really a fan of this question. I am far more interested in how intrapreneurs can move from the peripheral edges of their company, to become a legitimate part of how the company does business. I prefer to think of ways of moving from being a pirate that works on stuff that leadership does not care about, to being an explorer that works on new products and services that are aligned to the company’s innovation strategy.
I am the first to admit that this is not an easy task. It is perhaps one of the more difficult things to attempt inside an established company. Most intrapreneurs quickly learn that it is going to be extremely difficult to transform their company. The leadership in the company are just too entrenched in their old ways of working. I am often asked by intrapreneurs about what they can do if they fail to find any early adopters for transformational innovation among their company’s leadership. My advice is always the same. Update your resume and quit!
However, for some people, quitting their jobs is not really an option. They also don’t want to give up on their innovative ideas and simply return to the day job. They have a passion for their ideas and they want to give it a try within their company. For these innovators I offer different advice. Run and hide!
It is now time to start an underground movement. If you want to innovate in a hostile environment, you will need to use guerilla tactics to protect and nurse your ideas until they are strong enough to come out into the open. Below is a brief survival guide that you and your team can use to navigate the treacherous territory of corporate politics.
Lower Cost Of Innovation
Whatever you do, do not spend a lot of money or resources on testing your ideas. In an underground movement, the cost of testing ideas should be negligible. You need to master lean startup tools and use them effectively. You also need to move quickly. The longer you take testing your ideas, the more chances there are for leaders to find them and kill them. The goal here is to gather enough evidence as quickly as possible about the viability of our idea. So that when we are found out, we can make a compelling case to be allowed to continue.
Stay Away From The Company Brand
I once worked with a team that made the mistake of sending out an email brochure to customers to test whether their value proposition resonated. In the email, they provided their details for anyone who was interested in the offering to contact them. They thought that providing their own details would contain the blast radius of the experiment, as customers would only get in touch with them if there was some interest. But this is not what happened.
What they forgot to consider was that a lot of these customers already had good relationships with the sales team inside the company. So after receiving the email, instead of calling the team using the details provided, the customers called their sales representatives. As you can expect, the sales team were totally unaware of this “new product” being tested. After the Head of Sales heard about this experiment, the team was in a lot of trouble. Their idea was almost killed and they were lucky to keep their jobs.
The key takeaway from this story is that you should stay away from the company brand; and more importantly from their current customers. By opting to run an underground movement, you have effectively forfeited your access to using the company brand. So use a white label or a fake brand name to test your value propositions; and take your ideas to new customers rather than the company’s current ones. Only later when you have more evidence of traction can you hope to get permission to use the brand.
Get Separate Space
As you may have gathered from my previous articles, I am not a fan of the separate innovation lab. However, this might be an option for a team that is working within a hostile environment. So if you can swing it, get yourself a separate space. Preferably as far away from the mothership as possible. If you can get located in a different city, even better. If it was up to me, I would choose a cool city like my native Harare, Cape Town, San Francisco, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Shanghai or New York!
Get Separate Budget
In addition to getting your own space, you need to get a separate budget. It is difficult to run an underground movement if you have to depend on a middle manager for budget approvals every quarter. In my experience, the best budget option is to be part of an R&D team. It is often the case that R&D investments are amortizable. It is easier to run an underground movement if you show up as an amortizable expense rather than an operational cost. Again, the goal here is to find ways to go unnoticed within the company. We only want to be noticed when some of our ideas have undeniable traction.
Find A Diplomat
Finally, you will need to find a diplomat. You need to have a key ally among the leadership team to provide you with some aircover. This diplomat has to be both well-connected and well-respected inside the company. Their role is to support your work, get you budgets and resources, buy you time for experimentation and protect you from the bureaucracy of the mothership. Their role as a bridge to the company becomes even more important if any one of your ideas succeeds. When it’s time to ask for resources to scale your ideas, there is nothing more valuable than having a well respected leader in your corner.
Will You Survive?
Just one last piece of advice. When you are running an underground movement, remember the first rule about fight club. Don’t talk about fight club. If you want to be famous or popular within your company — you chose the wrong movement. You have to be extremely patient and care about the success of your ideas more than anything else. If you make too much noise with your ideas by demanding resources and attention too early — your movement will fail.
It is also important that I leave you with a disclaimer. If you choose this path, your chances of success are really low. Innovation projects that do not have leadership support, have a high mortality rate. Before you embark on this journey, make sure that you are prepared for that possible eventuality. You should only choose to go under the radar if you have no other choice.