Low Hanging Innovation: Can You Run Out of Startup Ideas?
Innovation leaders at the world’s leading organizations feel a constant anxiety: “How long until we run out of ideas?”
“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” - Charles Holland Duell, Commissioner of the United States Patent Office from 1898 to 1901
Ironically, it's been proven that Charles Duell did not actually say that, but the sentiment remains. Innovation leaders at the world’s leading organizations feel this anxiety: “How long until we run out of ideas?”
”Looking back over the last several decades,” High Alpha Innovation CEO Elliott Parker highlights, “we're seeing shrinking lifespans in companies. Competition is becoming more fierce; life cycles of companies are getting shorter. It's harder than ever to compete. It's harder than ever to innovate. And you've got people working inside of big companies who are trying to drive this innovation, who feel increasingly like they're banging their heads against the wall every day and wondering, ‘Is it me?’ ‘Is it my organization?’ And the answer is no, it's just harder.”
PICKING THE LOW HANGING FRUIT
Our corporate and university partners often ask “Are we picking the low hanging fruit? We have a great portfolio now, but will there be enough quality ideas down the road?” This brings up a great analogy. Many of us enjoy apple picking each year as the air turns crisp. Easy-to-reach fruit on the lower branches are the first to go, especially in a year of a late frost or springtime snowfall. Once an orchard has been picked over though, it takes more energy to reach the remaining limited selection. Having young children, I know what it’s like to lift someone over your shoulders to reach the remaining prized fruit in an orchard that hasn’t fallen to the ground to rot. Innovation leaders with limited resources, a tightly focused scope, or renewed emphasis from leadership will relate to the difficult task at hand.
APPLES NEED CROSS-POLLINATION
Apple orchards take years of preparation and cultivation to yield the quantity and varieties of fruit we all enjoy each year. If you plant one lone apple tree, you will very likely be disappointed if you expect fruit at the end of the season or even years later. Apple blossoms need cross-pollination from another apple tree to yield fruit. That’s why you need at least a few trees in relative proximity and why vast rows of trees are planted in orchards. You’ll often notice beehives on or near an orchard where honey bees perform the essential job of cross-pollination in order for the fruit to develop and produce a bountiful yield each year.
IDEAS NEED CROSS-POLLINATION
The problem many leading organizations face today is that they are too good at what they were designed to do by becoming more specialized and less innovative as a result. The paradox of operational excellence increasing the risk of disruption to the organization was most famously coined by the late Clay Christensen as “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. So how can you cultivate the environment to create rich combinations of ideas and discover market defining opportunities?
Your organization may respond with additional resources to spur innovation: build newer and bigger labs, buy more equipment, or increase innovation rewards. But efforts that double down on existing methods can often aggravate an existing system dynamic. Bigger innovation program cost centers will become budget targets when comparing the unknown with clearly defined opportunity costs for financial returns. Innovation theater and vanity metrics can incentivize the wrong behaviors. It can be frustrating to see the increased efforts without matching results.
Ideas, much like fruit, need cross-pollination. It takes time and active effort to create and cultivate an environment where ideas can flourish. Creators, innovators, and problem-solvers must be enabled and empowered to make new connections that lead to new opportunities.
STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO PROMOTE INNOVATION
The solution is not yet another siloed program or sticky note workshop, but a system-wide incentive structure that requires buy-in from leadership at all levels. Here are a few steps that leadership across organizations can take to protect and promote those engaged in creative innovation:
- OPERATIONS / FACILITIES: Design physical and virtual spaces to get people out of their seats making new connections. Create collaborative environments with resources to share ideas between people who normally don’t work together day-to-day. Modular, temporary, cross-functional, and even mobile workspaces can facilitate discussions across corporate and university campuses. Host internal meetups and external events where people from various backgrounds can brainstorm novel approaches to enduring problems.
- HR / TALENT: Hire diverse teams with a wide breadth of experiences, interests, and unique backgrounds that might traditionally be screened out of well-defined, specialized roles. Help people identify and promote their unique quirks and hobbies as well as their superpowers and experiences that they alone can bring to the table. Make sure job descriptions, roles, and responsibilities have the flexibility to consider non-traditional candidates with alternative education or industry backgrounds. Create clear and significant incentives for everyone to explore and be creative. Recognize and reward novel contributions with more than a gift card. Be aware of structural penalties for work and time spent outside of assigned work to not punish innovation and collaboration. Build alternative pathways to career development or university tenure such as sabbaticals, rotational programs, and startup experiences that can integrate into traditional career tracks.
- FINANCE / STRATEGY: Create “Build/Buy/Partner” startup strategies that Innovate from the Balance Sheet. Rather than repetitive budget talks, carve out the strategic space for transformative growth opportunities by making asset allocations rather than expense line items. Delineate the role of Mergers & Acquisitions, Corporate Venture Capital, University Technology Transfer, and Endowment Fund activities by matching internal resources and capabilities to existing markets or business models and matching external investment vehicles with new markets or business models.
- SALES / MARKETING: Build genuine relationships with prospective customers - trust generates insights of deeper needs. You are in a unique position to understand the pulse of the market - surface those insights by championing the customer experience. Don’t just segment and track your traditional CAC, LTV, ROAS metrics but engage in ethnographic research to build contextual empathy and develop clear customer personas that communicate those values to your organization. Be your customer’s greatest advocate.
- R&D / INNOVATION: Be insatiably curious. Don’t wait in an ivory tower for innovative solutions to drop in your inbox. Move beyond the whiteboard to meet others and learn about what they’re working on. Make new connections and introduce people. Talk with the front lines. Be in the labs. Illuminate and surface the insights from those closest to the problems. To be a great innovator is to exercise deep empathy for those around you. A dedicated, sustained effort will build continuity and trust among your organization where people will share ideas or surface opportunities when they know you care enough to understand them.
Let’s continue to cultivate innovation and make new connections within our organizations. Former US Patent Office Commissioner Charles Duell’s actual expression is much more inspiring, which he said in 1902 after completing his appointment:
“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”
At High Alpha Innovation, we echo optimistically that there are more ideas and opportunities on the horizon than we can imagine today if we put in the effort to cultivate them. We work with our corporate and university partners to systematically launch startups before those ideas fall off the branch and rot. In addition, we help our partners build venture studios to create an enduring vehicle to take those ideas to market. Avoid innovation anxiety and build confidence in your future growth opportunities with us.
High Alpha Innovation partners with the world’s leading organizations to drive innovation through startup creation, leveraging the venture studio model pioneered by High Alpha. Our dedicated team of company builders, strategists, and designers apply a proven playbook to systematically execute your innovation strategy. We have learned through first hand experience that combining the speed of a venture studio with the knowledge and scale of a large organization can lead to amazing results.