How to… innovate like a start-up

Young start up company innovation

In the digital era, established firms need to disrupt markets to avoid being outmanoeuvred by nimbler rivals. But can they really innovate like start-ups? Matt Chapman, head of EMEA innovation services at Mindjet, suggests five ways they can

1 Offer meaningful rewards. 

Chapman says: “Engagement is crucial for successful innovation, and is something that can be achieved through gamification. People need to feel rewarded and recognised in most things they do and in innovation this is doubly true. Make innovation worth it by incentivising participation in innovation programmes – this could be the chance of a monetary reward, public praise and recognition (via a leaderboard, for example) or an extra few days’ holiday for submitting a winning idea.”

Set up incubator programmes.
“Allowing a small group of employees to focus solely on an innovation project can create a mini start-up within the business. Launching an incubator programme, or ‘innovation lab’, removes the chosen group from the constraints and hierarchy of the enterprise. Separating internal innovators mentally and physically from the way business is normally done can help them think outside of the box. This approach is catching on with firms such as Deutsche Bank, Accenture and Tesco launching incubator initiatives.”

Give ‘intrapreneurship’ prizes.
“If you can’t spare a group of employees, offering individuals the chance to make their bright idea a reality can be just as effective. This can be done by launching an innovation competition (think Dragons’ Den) where the best entrant wins funding and, crucially, time to take the idea forward. Intel runs a sustainability-focused grants programme, allowing employees to win funding in the region of a few thousand pounds for an innovative idea or project that helps cut cost and wastage or grows revenue. This can also help to retain staff and minimise your employees wanting to go it alone with their own start-up.”

Think small.
“Business efforts to foster a successful innovation programme are often hindered by a tendency to aim too high, or a lack of commitment from investors or budget holders to keep initiatives running. Most businesses demand at least a three-to-fourfold return on investment from an innovation programme. You don’t have to invent the next transformative product, such as the iPhone, with your first initiative. A series of small, incremental changes can add up to be as successful together and can have a meaningful and demonstrable short-term impact. Also, by targeting an early win you’ll build enthusiasm and support across the business, establishing processes and encouraging more employees to get involved. Crucially this momentum will likely keep budget holders onside, securing further investment before trying a more ambitious project.”

Shift the culture.
“Convincing the wider organisation of the value in innovation is key to long-term success, making communication crucial. This can be achieved by running an internal marketing campaign to generate interest and share outcomes. It doesn’t have to be an overly complicated or expensive process – excitement can be built up through advertisements or smart teasers in public office spaces, as well as sharing through internal platforms such as intranets and social collaboration tools. Think carefully about your business identity, how innovation will fit in and what will engage your staff. For example, insurance firm MetLife decided to brand its innovation platform as Linus to fit in with the company’s longstanding Peanuts theme (remember Snoopy the dog?). Linus is the thoughtful, well-informed character from the series, so it made sense to name their innovation portal after him – better integrating innovation into the company culture and giving the programme a distinct identity. By creating the right working environment through culture and opportunity to innovate, building a realistic strategy, as well as offering the right incentives and rewards, firms of any size in any industry can build a truly effective innovation programme.”


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Director Magazine

Director Magazine

Director is the magazine for business leaders. Free to IoD members and available to purchase through subscription, each edition is full of insightful interviews with entrepreneurs and company directors.

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