The startup world understands the power of ecosystems. Proven models like Techstars and Y Combinator select startups through a competitive process, then connect them with mentors, potential partners, investors, and team members during an intensive, facilitated process. The startups become part of a set of dense relationships among players who were critical to their success.
GE’s Innovation Accelerator, led by chief marketing officer Beth Comstock and her team, adapts this ecosystem notion for a corporate environment. In 2011, GE selected six teams tackling major innovation opportunities for GE businesses. The CMO’s office gathered experts from a range of backgrounds over a nine-month period to challenge the teams’ assumptions and conduct a series of working sessions. Comstock and her group also recruited external coaches for each team and created an advisory panel of five external experts who review plans, challenge assumptions, and provide guidance. The coaches and panelists have no executive authority, but their perspectives play critical roles in shaping thinking and action plans. Innovation Accelerator director Viv Goldstein says, “The coaches and advisory panel help us build an ecosystem of partners into our process. They challenge our GE assumptions and offer our innovation teams access to a wider world.”
5. Activate broad networks. Whereas ecosystems involve relationship depth and active commitment, more general networks provide breadth of access to diverse knowledge and capabilities. Socializing your team’s objectives and challenges with broad networks enhances the potential for others to offer opportunities and solutions.
Over the past decade, new organizations have arisen to create communities of innovation leaders. The online platform Innovation Excellence includes a network of more than 5,000 innovation practitioners and thought leaders, a number that has grown rapidly since the site’s founding in late 2010. Participants can register and browse, or take active roles within the community. Innovation Excellence offers broad access to the innovation arena, but as an open community, it applies only limited efforts to screening members.
In 2003, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University founded the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) to create a community of corporate innovation and growth leaders. It has since evolved into an invitation-only group of leaders from business, government, academia, the nonprofit sector, and the arts. The KIN is financially supported by its members and leverages the neutral platform and intellectual rigor of the university. The KIN’s diversity enhances the likelihood that participants will connect with people they don’t normally meet, offering new perspectives, insights, and opportunities. Building on regular in-person events, KIN members—or KINians, as they call themselves—create relationships and collaborate on their own agendas.
These five approaches can expand the scale and reach of innovation initiatives, even in situations in which adding people or funding may be neither optimal nor practical. They require varying degrees of investment and can be applied by companies of all sizes; however, in this arena, large companies have the advantage. Although successful startups might win more admirers, larger companies can seed more replication, build broader and deeper ecosystems, engage more networks, support more evangelists, and invest in more growth platforms. But enterprises will achieve their potential only if they have the guts, commitment, and patience to make meaningful change happen at scale.
Reprint No. 00233