Innovation programs: the worst thing to happen to innovation

Why many innovation programs kill innovation, and what you can do to change that.

In “The Innovative CIO” I wrote about several innovation killers ranging from interpersonal styles to unnecessarily constrained thinking. Today I would like to add an item to the list: Corporate Innovation Programs.

“There’s one for you, nineteen for me”– George Harrison, “Taxman”

I have seen many innovation programs, targeted at building breakthrough businesses, actually make it more difficult for innovators to succeed than when no program existed. But not having a program is a luck-based strategy, and that’s not a good option either. So what’s the right answer? A look at one key issue might help answer that.

Too many innovation programs place a heavy burden on innovators before they even get to pitch their ideas. Many insist upon precisely crafted slide decks, often with 60 to 100 pages of prescribed detail. Due to the early stage of these ideas, much of that detail is a work of fiction, possibly misleading, and only used during the pitch. Furthermore, these documents often have little, if any, focus on the problem they intend to solve, the customer who has that problem, and why that customer would value a solution.

They haven’t got time for the pain

When this is the case, the tax on innovative ideas is just too heavy and innovators stop bringing their ideas to the program. It’s too painful, and word travels fast—fastest amongst the best innovators in my experience. But if this doesn’t work, and having no program is not a strategy, what can we do?

Be “a resource, not a tax”

Instead of being focused on the process, program teams need to be focused on the ideas and the innovators. When I was asked to help build what became CA Accelerator, CA Technologies’ new business incubator, we adopted the mantra, “a resource not a tax”. We view the entire program, and ourselves, as resources given to the intrapreneurs to give their ideas the best possible chance to succeed. The process itself can never be the goal.

In the Accelerator, everything we do must respect this mantra. We use lean principles. If something doesn’t add value, we don’t do it. And we use tools that can serve more than one purpose. We do all of this from the very first interaction with our innovators.

Keep it simple, keep it lean

Take, for example, our pitch process. Each pitch team is asked only to bring a one-page lean canvas and to articulate their idea in their own style in 10 minutes. We then spend 10 minutes asking questions to ensure we understand their idea, not judging it. We set a very informal tone and focus on the idea, not the ceremony. Intrapreneurs actually enjoy the experience.

The lean canvas helps innovators to think through their entire idea, with a focus on their potential customer and the problem they are solving. The result is they are much better prepared to articulate their ideas and answer the evaluation team’s questions. And if they are successful, that canvas becomes something they can use to evolve their idea and remove risk from their business as it matures. It’s not just a pitch artifact, it has much more lasting value.

The value of viewing our program as a resource, not a tax, has been one of the most important lessons we have learned to date. We frequently tell our founders to let us know whenever they feel we are not living up to the mantra, and that has resulted in key changes to our program. Which is the next important principle. We take the same lean approach to our program’s evolution we ask our founders to apply to their businesses. And that has made all the difference.

Stay tuned because we’ll be sharing more news and learning from the CA Accelerator.


As VP of Strategy, George helps budding intrepreneurs turn great ideas into viable businesses leveraging…

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