Projects vs Programs K.O. victory could have bad consequences !
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
When we started the corporate innovation lab some years ago it was fully centered around exploration programs to source innovation projects. We had few but very strong programs in place.
For external innovation we had two programs, one Accelerator program with start-ups incubated onsite, and another program around exploring future domains and buidling expertise with academia and precompetitive industry players, involving in certain campaigns some summer residency of external graduates.
For internal innovation, we had two main programs, one consisting in a global campaign leveraging our 50.000 employees and funneling from 500 to 5 best winning projects. Finally, the last exploration program offers to select 4 groups of 4 outstanding employees in a commando residency to identify future trends pain points, travel around to collect insights and generate solutions with high value.
There was a lot of collaboration and synergies across those 4 exploration programs in order to leverage knowledge and learnings, in particular in derisking opportunities areas. One of the main activity was about managing creativity, turning it into actionable, reducing uncertainty by testing critical assumptions. That was a set of skills you find rarely in corporation and we were therefore assembling a team by recruiting mix of science business profiles outside of the company. Behind it, we have created a dedicated career ladder from entry level university graduates onto confirmed and experienced senior managers.
Managing a program is a very rewarding job with some responsibilities for budget, for coordinating suppliers, engaging experts, travelling to key Technology hubs and Scientific conventions. Another great part of the job is to engage with intrinsically motivated innovators, seeing them developing their entrepreneurial skills. In addition, I enjoyed very much the interactions with a large spectrum of internal and external stakeholders where you see the passion and deep interest when it comes to developing game changing science and technology or addressing unmet customer needs in a very novel manner.
If you look at other innovation labs in the industry, you may see that not all of them get this transformation successful:
In some case the innovation lab remains a circus with yellow bean bags, a robot pepper and millenials wearing hoodies
In other cases, it ends-up as a project management office without any additional value in comparison to the R&D center next door
In the second case, we often observe that innovation exploration programs are reduced to one or two successful ones. The entrepreneurial skills of their innovation facilitators start loosing attractiveness. Creativity, imagination, curiosity don’t have the same prestige and slowly, colleagues with such a profile are leaving.
Now it has been more than 4 years. Having the strong goal on delivering monetary value, our unit has increased its competence in project build-up and exploitation. It is even more the case after the recent merge between the innovation lab and the new business incubator. Here, the main skills, we are looking for, are around project management and operations... that you find easily among the company profiles. The preferred career path is to grow yourself along a project and be part of its success.
Even if it is a sign of organisation maturity, ... moving from creativity to project pragmatism induces a bias against innovation. The need for control and validation inherent to exploitation will easily have a negative impact in exploration of uncertain opportunities (but more disruptive). This is well summarized in HBR paper: https://hbr.org/2013/07/innovation-isnt-an-idea-proble
There is also a limit of the project centric organisations. The characteristic of projects is that they all compete for the same overall budget envelop. This is classic in managing R&D projects. For instance, one project reaching successfully its milestone has a consequence on putting more pressure on the next one. Another limit is that jobs are highly linked to project survival, in particular for local hires who don’t have a business units to go back. This makes it more difficult to stop projects and free resources. In both cases, this competition among projects is lowering the level of trust and slowing any attempts for collaboration, practice sharing or joining mutual resources. This is directly affecting intrinsic motivation and is rarely compensated with extrinsic monetary incentives. A recent article in HBR also insist on the collaboration blind spot: https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-collaboration-blind-spot
1 - A first recommendation for compensating the competition mindset is to put collaboration and cooperation at the center of those organisations. By increasing the level of trust, you create a feel of safety in case projects fail. Collaboration helps you also to provide a strong joint vision for people to engage on the long run. Aso, innovation labs evolve and reshape their programs continuously to improve engagement with external or internal ventures or to generate future insight.
2 - A second recommendation is to create an internalized innovation services agency to keep track of experience and expertise developed across past and current programs. Such an agile and reduced team would collect all the history and know-how of former programs and could adjust or design new ones on demand. Internalizing innovation services offers the unique possibility to leverage company experts and capabilities that external consultants can’t offer. Of course goals and kpis for such internal agency would be different from the rest of the innovation lab with performance not linked to projects financial outcome but rather to the engagement of different business units employees.
Finally, between the project centric organisation and its satellite for innovation services there is room for another exception. A place where creativity and entrepreneurial mindset&skills are valued and recognized leading to higher intrinsic motivation. A place remote enough to break from the organisation... possibly hosted in another country office.. giving participants the possibility to excubate and come back later in the company.. and... offering an alternative incentive approach..
... a kind of moon in the Star Wars universe that would be inhabited by the Star Trek explorers crew of Captain Picard.