Corporate Innovation in Uncertain Times

Life has taken a left turn in almost every community and corporation, and we’ve departed from the normal rhythms of our work and lives. While for some, life may now feel like it lacks purpose, others are operating at peak capacity and volatility. Bottom line: COVID-19 has disrupted life for all of us in some form.

What the post-COVID-19 world holds is still uncertain, and naturally, that uncertainty is accompanied by fear. In too many corporations, innovation and “future” projects are only funded when there’s excess. Those innovation teams are now wondering if they’ll see disproportionate cuts to their funding.

But the very reason we feel afraid—disruption—is the very same reason why it’s time to get focused on our collective mandate: to disrupt and innovate. We’ve broken from the “normal,” so now, we’re operating outside the worn mental paths and familiar operating environments. As the newly popular saying goes, “Constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity.”

So, with this (welcome) reset forced upon us, here are four things leading corporates are doing to stay sharp and move past their fear in favor of their call to innovate:


1. Examine the true motives driving them, especially those that have been left unexamined.

When it comes down to it, a ton of corporates have pretty poor underlying motivations for working with founders. They often do it because they just don’t want to get beat by the competition. Or, they just want to grow their own revenues and/or save costs.

Have a motivation that’s focused on something bigger than your company, but that’s also tied to your company goals. Startups don’t care about your internal growth projections. But if you find a common denominator, you can actually get startups excited about working with you. Think about Volvo’s goal, “No deaths in our cars by 2020.” Sure, it will likely generate more money because people will want to buy safer cars, but it’s also about something bigger than just money. It’s something that all of us (including startups!) can get excited about. And it’s so much better (and more specific) than “We want to increase our revenue in 2020” or “We want to exceed our customer’s expectations.” Who doesn’t? Plus, neither of those goals generate excitement or clarity. But, eliminating all deaths in cars is exciting.

2. Seek clarity, get sign-off, and share their vision with a broader set of exclusive stakeholders, who may now be open to and aligned with new ways of thinking.

It’s vital to hear senior management tell you exactly why you’re doing this and what your expectations are. This is the vision, the overarching reason you’ve developed an internal innovation team, to begin with. Once you know the big goal from senior management and the reason the company has started an innovation arm of the company, it’s time to make smaller, more specific and very tangible goals. Finally, review, revise, and finalize plans for the following quarter.

3. Consider new structures and alternative methods of driving innovation.

Four models that corporates have seen success with are corporate accelerators, innovation labs, startup-friendly products, and internal startup motivation. As startups mature, so too are the ways corporations are structuring their startup engagement programs.

4. Care for their startup partners and ask how they can address their needs, first.

In times like these, we can easily focus on ourselves. Yet, if corporates are going to be successful, they must make sure that the startups they’re calling on feel taken care of and supported. That means that corporates must ensure they align on values, measurable goals, what “success” will ultimately look like with each startup they’re having conversations with. Otherwise, startups risk confirming their fears around corporates’ lack of agility and desire to truly work with startups. 


Uncertain times don’t have to equal failure. Uncertain times instead can be the impetus we all need to forge new partnerships and spur new innovations.



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