Diving into General Motor’s Shark Tank

Automotive News highlighted an interesting (and perhaps innovative) approach to finding breakthrough innovations which is being used by General Motors; an internal innovation competition [1]. Their annual “Research & Development Innovation Challenge” provides finalists with an opportunity to present their ideas to GM executives during a 5 to 10 minute pitch à la the popular TV show Shark Tank. The winner is granted funding and a degree of freedom in order to pursue the idea. This is certainly an unusual process which combines a scattered initiation approach with a more formal evaluation structure.

According the article, “entrants must pitch ideas that have a high degree of commercial potential in
one of six key areas” in order to succeed (advanced propulsion, connected-vehicle technologies, advanced materials, sensors, manufacturing technologies, and analytics). Drawing on concepts from the book, The Entrepreneurial Mindset, this may help innovators by providing a “ballpark” for their efforts [2]. Additionally, it ensures that the potential ventures will align with GM’s current strategy. But at the same time, too much focus on commercial potential may lead to the dreaded “short-termism” that stifles corporate entrepreneurship. Perhaps GM should split the competition into two categories: one for short-term commercial applications and another for long-term technological breakthroughs.

Unfortunately there is no mention of potential benefits (bonuses, recognition, promotion, etc.) for the contestants besides the opportunity to pursue their innovations. This leads me to wonder if innovators will be properly rewarded for their efforts – including those who did not receive funding. After all, just reaching the finals and stepping onto that stage required great courage and initiative. Furthermore, if the winning projects fail to deliver positive financial returns, will the innovators receive the same opportunities for career advancement or will they lose time and reputation in the process? These questions may determine whether this practice is truly a sustainable method for encouraging corporate entrepreneurship.

Some food for thought…

  •   What are other pros and cons of this approach?
  •   How could this competition be improved?
  •   Can this technique be used in other industries?

– Kyle DeVault

[1] R. Truett, “GM’s sharks hunt for innovations”, Automotive News, 2017. [Online]. Available: http://www.autonews.com/article/20160229/OEM06/302299967/gms-sharks-hunt-for-innovations. [Accessed: 19- Feb- 2017].

[2] R. MacGrath and I. MacMillan, The Entrepreneurial Mindset, 1st ed. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

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