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How to Grow Successful Ideas in Big Companies

This article was based on the TED@IBM Talk, “How a Company Can Nurture It’s Internal Rebels,” by Shoel Perelman:


Evolutionary Innovation

Big companies are great at killing new ideas.  Leaders in large organisations have a responsibility to create momentum, and they create this momentum by getting everybody rowing in the same direction.  Employees in these companies who reinforce that momentum through evolutionary innovation are embraced by the company. This evolutionary innovation is a torrent of energy that all flows in the same direction, and it’s flowing towards improving the products that a company makes and sells to its customers.


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Revolutionary Innovation

Big companies are pretty good at evolutionary innovation; it’s how they became big companies.  However, there’s another type of innovation, and that is revolutionary innovation. This is that little stream branching off from the river.  Revolutionary innovation departs from existing products and existing customers. It can be riskier because there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be valuable or practical, yet revolutionary innovation has the potential to open up new business opportunities with new types of customers.


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Why Companies Need Both Types of Innovation

Big companies need a mixture of both types of innovation, but so often the revolutionary part ends up being acquired from outside.  This isn’t because new ideas don’t exist within big companies. In fact, there are often rebels within these companies who have ideas that go against the momentum, and it can be frustrating for them to gain traction with their ideas. Frustrated rebels don’t stick around, and many of them will leave to go to startups or start their own companies.  It is precisely these rebels, these types of people, that big companies need to reinvent their companies from the inside.


Finding an Innovation Partner

Finding the right external innovation partner can make the difference between a company killing a rebel’s idea and that rebel’s idea taking hold in the company. What if there was an efficient way for rebels in big companies to be matched up with smaller companies so they could collaborate on co-innovation?  

Think of a system like online dating, except to match up companies and innovative rebels. This system would allow rebels in big companies to browse for their potential innovation mates. They’d be matched up with their closest matches, and when there is mutual interest, they’d be put in touch to have an innovation date.


Consider an online personals ad that reads, “Cognitive computing rebel in Fortune 50 company who wants to detect your shoppers’ personalities seeks a midsize online clothing retailer to co-innovate. I’ll bring the data scientists. You bring the data. No strings attached for a year.” The rebel would start with three pieces of information, who they are in their vision, who they are looking for, and the relationship timeline.


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Defining Your Innovation Vision

First, the rebel would start with an eye-catching description of their innovative vision. This isn’t that different from what inventors do on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. The difference here is that the rebel is not looking for funding from the outside; they are looking to find their innovation mate.

Next, the rebel would specify the criteria that they are looking for in their innovation mate, like the kind of industry their innovation mate should be in.  In our example, the rebel is looking to understand shoppers’ personalities based upon their online interactions, so their innovation mate needs to be in e-commerce.


How big should their innovation mate be? A small, ten-person company probably doesn’t have time to spend on co-innovating with an external company. The rebel probably needs to find an innovation mate in a slightly bigger company of about 50 to 100 people. It is important to be specific about the criteria because it increases the chances of alignment in their innovation goals.  

Finally, the rebel would specify a relationship end date. While specifying an expiration date in a romantic personal ad may seem odd, in this case, it’s actually just being honest.  The rebel knows that within a certain amount of time one of two things will happen. The innovation could be successful, and the company will want to sell it to other customers, which would in itself change the nature of the innovative relationship.  On the other hand, the innovation could fizzle, in which case the rebel and their innovation may need to move on. Being upfront about the end date gives the big company more confidence to let their rebel experiment freely because they don’t have to worry about having to bail out a failed project if it doesn’t work out.


The Benefits of an Innovation Partnership

So, how is it that all parties here benefit in this scenario? The rebel would get to develop their idea with the interested customer, big companies would get to see their rebel stick around and maybe even have a new stream of customers that come out of it, and smaller companies get to tap into the deep expertise that’s within bigger companies. In this future, big companies wouldn’t have to be so good at killing new ideas because their rebels would be more successful at growing them.


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