When innovation initiatives succeed, company leaders typically respond, “Great. Now do more!” This provides affirmation, but it also presents the innovation team with two challenges: scalability and funding. First, many innovation initiatives cannot be scaled in a linear fashion. Adding more people often adds complexity and bureaucracy, and often impairs the communication and creativity of the original successful innovation initiative.
At BP, for example, Daru Darukhanavala, the company’s chief technology officer for digital and communications technologies, created an innovation team in 1999 with just 18 people and a modest budget. It has returned between US$100 million and $200 million per year in cost savings to BP, as documented by the business units assisted. Darukhanavala has resisted pressure to expand his group because he knows part of the magic comes from its size. The company keeps the team small to replicate the nimble, no-bureaucracy approach of venture capital firms.
Many innovation initiatives cannot be scaled in a linear fashion.
The second challenge is that although leaders want more innovation, they are often unwilling to provide sufficient funding—even for those initiatives that have already proved successful. Defending noncore innovation budgets is always difficult.
Over the past decade of exploring innovation initiatives across many industries, we have seen numerous promising initiatives falter in the face of one or both of these obstacles.
How, then, can you take successful models for innovating, typically tested at a smaller scale within special-purpose teams, and expand their impact? How can you do so with limited additional personnel and funds? Over the past few years, we’ve discovered five reliable ways to overcome this challenge.
1. Replicate proven models. With all due respect to Kafka, human-sized insects don’t work. An insect’s living systems can’t function at that size. Insects can, however, scale up through replication. Innovation teams can do the same, though some models replicate better than others. For example, complicated initiatives or those dependent on a few key individuals or assets tend to be difficult to scale by replication. If you decide to replicate an initiative, define a model based on core principles and ensure that leadership and mentorship are readily available.
Replication is how BP CTO Darukhanavala met the challenge referred to earlier: Instead of expanding his small innovation team, he sent one of his core team members to help another business—renewable energies—create its own version of his program. They have applied the core principles and behaviors of the original program, but in the pursuit of different objectives: discovering and piloting alternative energy solutions for BP’s long-term growth. Darukhanavala’s team continues to be available for consultations as the new group grows. The team has since helped to implement similar methodologies with other BP businesses, such as Castrol.
The TED Conference, an invitation-only confab hosted in California each year to share “ideas worth spreading,” provides another example. As the program grew in popularity, the TED team recognized that the conference could scale through leveraging the global community of TEDizens, as they’re called. They realized that creating more and more TED events themselves would require radical scaling of the organization, as well as a far greater commitment of the scarcest resource: expert facilitation provided by curator Chris Anderson and his team. By launching TEDx, a licensing platform offering individuals and organizations access to the TED brand, methodology, and global community, TED was able to proliferate its experience to thousands of events worldwide, curated by individual licensees. TED does not retain editorial or production control of TEDx events, so quality varies. But the core team maintains basic standards for all TEDx licensing, and selects a small subset of high-performing TEDx programs to support with advice and exposure within the global TED community.