Overcoming “Innovation Theater”
Presented by SRI International
Over the past 20 plus years, many companies looking to catch the spark of Silicon Valley and accelerate their innovation practices have opened “Innovation Hubs”, sponsored “hackathons”, toured the tech companies along US-101, invested in accelerators, and generally spent a lot of time in beanbags conceptualizing their futures.
Unfortunately, many of these endeavors resulted in little return for the companies, even though they were showcased as trophy “innovation centers of excellence.” Rita McGrath, author and professor of business at Columbia University coined the term “innovation theater” for when companies “perform a bunch of stuff that looks like innovation, but creates little real value”.
In many cases, the participants of past innovation hubs rarely strayed far from the safety of their nice, hipster spaces with espresso bars and did not have any real authority to influence the development priorities and were so far from headquarters that none of their learning rubbed off on the core businesses.
To avoid these pitfalls, SRI International has partnered with sponsor Nomura to create the Nomura — SRI Innovation Center (NSIC). Building on the technology pragmatism of SRI, innovation process expertise, and the market acumen of Nomura, NSIC provides an immersive development environment headquartered in Silicon Valley for Japanese businesses to explore and develop their innovation portfolio, processes and toolkit, ecosystem, and culture.
NSIC has assembled a team of innovation process experts, practitioners with technology and business design backgrounds, and intrapreneurial business leaders to create a program and supportive environment that allows its member companies to take advantage of the best that Silicon Valley has to offer.
In order for any company to grow consistently, they must nurture a robust pipeline of new ideas, capabilities, and the systems to rapidly explore, test, prune, and deploy those ideas.
Typically, businesses will manage three different types of innovation projects, commonly known as McKinsey’s three horizon framework. Horizon 1, or sustaining innovations, are usually managed within the core business. Horizon 2, or emerging business innovations, can be managed both within the core business or in a separate innovation group. The exploration of new ideas, technologies, and transformative business models are Horizon 3 Innovations, and are best kept separate from the core business as they often require different expectations and incentives to be successful.
The NSIC program provides members with unique exposure to new technologies and business models within the SRI labs and Silicon Valley startups that could rapidly translate into Horizon 2 or 3 projects through inspirations, partnerships, and investments. To take advantage of these opportunities, participants must develop the skills and tools to manage a diverse portfolio of projects as well as develop the necessary organizational rigor to promote, continue, and kill projects in a timely fashion.
The most profound component of a thriving innovation company is its culture and the mindset of the people within it. It’s important to recognize that the environment and incentives required to drive a company to excellence at scale through execution are not the same as those required to explore and test new transformative innovations.
Many corporate cultures will unintentionally kill innovative thinking by measuring emerging ventures as they would ongoing businesses. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to separate those groups, and there are few places as steeped in innovation culture for a cutting-edge innovation team to flourish as in Silicon Valley. While the innovations and technological tools that are shaping our future today no longer just come from Silicon Valley, the density of top research schools, investors, and entrepreneurs located in the region, still make it a unique crucible for insights, innovation and entrepreneurship.
The NSIC program is designed to be an experiential learning environment where members have unlimited opportunities to interact with startups, researchers, and entrepreneurs and safely explore and try on new ideas and technologies that would not be considered within the core business. Through this innovation culture immersion and time spent building and experimenting with prototype models, the members learn to value risk-taking and productive failure as keys to their innovation practice.
Innovation process and tools
Every breakthrough innovation was the result of some rigorous process for identifying, developing, and testing before it became a reality. Even “happy accidents”, the innovations that happened as a result of some mistake, occurred due to an environment that established the necessary conditions for identifying the solution.
At NSIC, a portfolio approach to innovation is required for established companies that need to prioritize execution and incremental improvements, while also investing enough in emerging markets and new businesses that they can be sure to disrupt themselves before someone else does.
Through the NSIC program, participants learn how to diagnose and develop “tech readiness”, understand customer experience through design thinking, explore new business models, build opportunity maps with forecasting and retro casting, utilize experimentation and rapid prototyping, and learn the skills and mindset of an intrapreneur to activate successful changes within an established organization.
The final element that is necessary for a successful innovation practice is a well-supported innovation ecosystem. By leveraging the SRI and Nomura networks, NSIC members gain instant access to a global community of academic and technology experts, business leaders, venture capital investors, research labs, startups and innovation practitioners.
These connections can rapidly accelerate progress on any innovation project by reducing the time to identify and validate market opportunities and competitive threats, while assessing technology readiness. This ecosystem can also set the standard and support out-of-the-box thinking and investing in breakthrough ideas that would not fit the core business model.
Innovation is the growth engine and source of adaptability
Ultimately, “innovation” is not an end goal, but rather a mindset and process for creating value. The impact to a business is through its novel approaches to solving a customer need and the value that creates — not the theater of simply doing innovation. NSIC’s mission is to help its members create a strong innovation culture, develop a comprehensive innovation methodology and toolkit, support a diverse ecosystem, and manage a pipeline of portfolio projects so that companies will build adaptability and resilience.
It’s about providing innovation value that helps companies move out of the scramble to survive and into the race to thrive.
To learn more, visit sri.com/the-nomura-sri-innovation-center.
Chris Cowart is Managing Director at the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center.
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