Innovating in a Large Enterprise: Breaking through the Barriers

 

David Barnes

David is a dynamic and forward-thinking executive who loves creative problem solving and building highly collaborative teams that achieve great things.

Updated Mar 30, 2022

Large enterprises have certain advantages when it comes to innovation, such as established R&D functions with budget to fund new projects and initiatives and a larger technology talent pool to tap for those projects. But there are reasons that game-changing technologies are usually associated with startups. 

At GenUI, our right-sized engineering teams use agile processes, amazing technology skills, and a strong focus on business value to help visionaries bring their ideas to life. However, before I helped provide these services, I was responsible for helping drive innovation programs at a number of large companies—the kinds of companies that are now our clients. I’d like to share a few of the things I learned the hard way, and some of the successful strategies that I used to get things moving in the right direction. 

Some of the most significant barriers faced by innovation teams in large enterprises include the following. 

Rigid thinking

Enterprises thrive on stability and predictability. When it comes to keeping the lights on, risk aversion is a good quality. However, software innovation today requires rethinking and modernizing fundamental technologies and processes in ways that may be distinctly uncomfortable to those whose jobs depend on five nines of uptime. Anything new always comes with a measure of risk, even if it’s only the risk of looking foolish or wasting time. Companies that innovate successfully find ways to reduce risk while empowering people to think outside the box. 

Shiny object syndrome

On the other side of the scale, technology-minded folks often seek the newest and most exciting technology. They overestimate the need for replacing existing systems with something newer rather than adapting what is already there. This sets up tension between the needs of the organization and the goals of the innovation team. The business can’t risk adopting something unproven or unfinished, or getting in a situation where a new technology turns out to be unsupportable in two years because the company that developed it goes out of business. 

Focus fail

At large companies with many complex projects and processes, innovation is often done “off the side of the desk.” In other words, it’s seen as something to be pursued while still supporting existing platforms or other operational needs or worse yet when their day job is finished. This is understandable: we all have dozens of priorities competing for time and attention. But innovation isn’t just ordinary work—it requires *more* focus and *more* dedication than the everyday to-do list. If the business doesn’t dedicate time, resources, and budget to innovation, it’s unlikely to materialize. 

Collaborative blockers

Collaboration challenges: Larger companies have the advantage of being able to staff up with specialists and build large teams. However, bigger groups sometimes mean higher barriers to inter-group collaboration. Remote work actually strengthens those barriers by reducing chance meetings and lunchtime chats.

Finding ways to cross these boundaries is a must for innovation anywhere. For one thing, new approaches require new combinations of skills and technology that may not have been tried before. More fundamentally, true collaboration creates the conditions for innovation, in which ideas often come from unexpected quarters. It requires people to step outside the mindset of “not my job” to “contribute my best.” 

However, most people will only contribute such ideas if they are either incredibly passionate about them, or they feel safe and rewarded for doing so. Some cultures are great at this, others less so, but it’s something leaders can always work to improve. We’ve got a few ideas at our blog post on the 5 Cs of collaboration

Workable strategies for overcoming big-company barriers to innovation 

In my time as an enterprise innovation lead, I found a few specific strategies that helped me overcome the cultural and process barriers that large organizations often face when undertaking software innovation projects. 

Build a Concise Business Case

Clarity is a great breaker of boundaries, but it’s not easy to come by. When I was first starting out, I was as guilty of anyone as wanting to bury decision makers in evidence—spreadsheets, PowerPoints, analyst research, you name it. Unfortunately, this rarely got me the results I wanted. 

I soon discovered that if I could express a powerful business case for a project or an idea concisely and with a mix of visual aids and compelling data I had a much better chance of seeing it through. When I’m at my best I get it down to one page. Frankly, if you haven’t won the attention of that C- or VP-level decision maker that quickly, they’ll be onto something else (see “competing priorities” above!).

I still had to do my homework. I still had to make sure I had the data to back up my assertions. In fact, it’s often harder and more time-consuming to write up something concise. But when people could instantly grasp the importance of the idea, it built excitement and momentum much faster than any long winded presentation. (For what it’s worth, I also use this as a test of whether an innovation is worth pursuing. If I truly couldn’t get the idea across with all its key points on one page, then I was likely overthinking the solution and hadn’t finished my work.) 

Spike, learn, and inform

Industry-standard software development processes often start with a requirements definition. There are two big problems with this. First, it’s slow. Second, it presumes you know the answer at a stage when you might still be figuring out the right questions to ask. And third, it’s easy to spend all your time and energy on requirements because they feel like tangible progress. 

Unfortunately, this approach is usually backwards, and it results in a lot of wasted time and effort. By the time we had agreement on requirements, a nimbler competitor may have eaten our lunch. 

I found it was much more effective to spike, learn, and inform. 

  • Spike: A short, intense workshop with a small team in startup mode. We focused on getting as far as possible toward a solution in a given time. Note that focus is key—we had to carve out dedicated time for a spike or it just got lost. Luckily, we’re talking hours or days, not weeks or months. 
  • Learn: A post-project evaluation where we evaluated the results—was our hypothesis true? What could we have done better? What next steps should we take? 
  • Inform: Share the results of spiking and learning with the broader team to show progress and results. 

This is generally not too hard to do, and by calling it a workshop instead of a project, you can avoid a lot of the performance anxiety that keeps ideas locked up. The format allows you to approach a problem with a “greenfield” mindset rather than trying to thread the needle of existing technologies and processes. At GenUI, we firmly believe that getting your idea out there as fast as you can is the best way to achieve success with your project. Requirements come after the innovation process has uncovered the true business value and user needs.

Take a long view

Every product lifecycle has three stages: beginning, maturation, and decline. Consider where your product is in this lifecycle. Is it already heading over the top of the curve and reaching the point of maturing? If so, the decline could be just around the corner. It may be time to completely reinvent or reboot your product, which requires not just innovation but also agility and collaboration. 

Collaboration is especially helpful in the reinvention stage, because the odds are strong that there are people within the company who know what to do to help. They just might not be getting the right attention and focus. Finding them and listening to them has often yielded gems in my experience.

Consider your culture

Entrenched cultural and behavioral mindsets exist in many organizations and are sometimes tough to overcome. For example, engineers are often risk averse, which slows down processes and prevents innovation from taking off. You need to work to ensure people are dedicated and open minded and let go of their constrained thinking. 

True innovation needs to be supported from the top. Senior leadership has to make everyone feel comfortable, in fact heartily encouraged, that it’s okay to experiment, trial, and fail. In addition, those tasked with innovation need to have unstructured capacity that is dedicated and safeguarded to enable the headspace to create new and transformative ideas. It won't work if they try to innovate off the side of their desk and are not supported from the top. Innovation requires clear-headed thinking and dedication to the project.

Link the roadmap to the business case

Innovation projects face two related challenges. One is getting funding: innovation projects can be more challenging to fund because their ROI is not yet proven. The other is keeping the project on track. Because you’re exploring new territory, it can be easy for the project team to get distracted or bogged down in issues that don’t ultimately drive value. 

The key is to link the business case and the roadmap together. Too often, the business case is handled by the innovation leader or product team, and then thrown over the wall for translation into technical requirements.

The business case documents the benefit for the user and how that translates into benefit for your organization. The roadmap shows the pathway for getting there.  This is an opportunity for transformative collaboration, not only to make sure the two documents align but to start the project off right with clear understanding among all participants. 

By collaborating on the alignment of these documents, the business and technical teams are both empowered to move efficiently toward the vision. Engineers know what will add value to the product. Product leaders start the technical conversation earlier, helping identify the most efficient path toward the goal. 

Circling back to the idea of funding, this kind of collaboration creates a concrete plan that holders of purse strings can relate to. You aren’t just pitching a vision–you are demonstrating how you will make it real and what the benefits will be. That’s a winning formula.

Speed is of the essence

Ultimately, innovating in a large organization requires a level of expertise that may not exist in your company at that particular time. Whether it’s cloud, software, hardware, design, or project management, expertise might not be in place on your internal teams. It’s important to weigh the opportunity cost of delaying time to market by months, quarters or more to hire or skill up to meet the needs of the project. 

Our goal is to help you get to market faster and also help your team gain the ability to manage what we build after we’re out of the picture, so you get the best of both worlds. We adapt our working model to match the business needs of the project, whether you want us to be your outsourced innovation department, augment your team with specific skills, or anything in between.

By working with an expert engineering team like ours, you get access to a dedicated group of people focused on helping you break through your barriers so you can keep your innovation project moving ahead. Get in touch and find out how we can help.