“Shark Tank” Enterprise Edition: the elevator pitch approach to corporate breakthrough innovation

In pursuit of the breakthrough innovation, companies continue to search for new and innovative ways to encourage the next big ideas from employees. Similar to the concept of “boot camps” or other forms of special settings for brainstorming and idea development, some companies have opted to hold pitch competitions, akin to those found on the Emmy Award-winning television series Shark Tank.

These competitions bring employees with new ideas for innovation before a panel of 4–5 judges, typically consisting of middle and upper-level management. Each competitor has a short time, perhaps 10 minutes to present their idea and a rough plan for implementation to the judges, who then engage the competitor with questions about the plan. To determine a winner, different firms have tried different approaches. For example, Geneca’s competition, entitled the Geneca Innovation Challenge, advances a select number of finalists to an additional round, from which they select a singular winner to pursue implementation of.

NakedWines.com, an online wine sales company, also holds recurring pitch competitions for innovation. In an interview with Business Insider, Marketing Manager Ryan O’Connell has praised the method as an extremely successful means of bringing “more impressive, out-of-the-box ideas to the table than any traditional marketing strategy [they’ve] had.” Cisco Systems also utilizes the method, but in this case, invites its partner software vendors to enter the competition. Their objective is to come up with innovative ways to implement Cicso technology. From an initial round of entrants, Cisco judges select four finalists to highlight on its website. They find this method to be effective in stimulating new uses of its technologies, which the company then promotes on its website to other potential partners and customers.

The Shark Tank method offers the benefit of encouraging intrapreneurship without taking employees away from their normal work assignments. In the event of a project being selected, the companies create avenues for employees to form teams and proceed with the project as a full-time endeavor, but the failure of an idea during the competition does not cause disruption to the creator’s normal work schedule. The competition, likely lasting only a few hours, could either be held during work hours, after hours, or on weekends, depending on the amount of time the company wishes to commit to the competition.

But at what cost?  The success of a competition like this depends on employees with new ideas they are passionate about—champions—that are willing to present in front of a live (and sometimes streamed) audience of their peers across the company, along with the panel of potentially senior level  managers as judges. This setup could lead to a few different, sub-optimal outcomes:

  • The idea could be rejected outright in a way that alienates the employee;
  • The employee is not able to itemize the project’s benefits in a pitch, so the opportunity is rejected for the wrong reasons;
  • The judges’ feedback may be too harsh and delivered in a highly visible setting, resulting in a negative impact on the employee’s morale.
  • The idea could be prematurely sent to a development phase before ideation is truly complete, and ends up failing or being incrementalized;
  • Approved ideas lack the supportive infrastructure associated with incubation and acceleration to really tilt them up; or
  • Winning teams whose ideas lose steam may find it difficult to return to their former jobs.

These are all avoidable concerns. A culture of flexibility, support and risk-tolerance may encourage employees to feel comfortable in participating in such a challenge. But most companies don’t experience that culture.

Moving forward, it will be important to track instances of companies holding these pitch competitions, and the success rate of the winning  projects.  But, in the meantime, does this seem like a viable approach to encourage breakthrough innovation?

Justin Etzine is a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he is pursuing a master’s of business administration. Prior to this, Justin studied computer science and information technology, and he has a special interest in how technology can be used to improve organizational efficiency.

Photo credit: Kevin via Gorospe NOAA’s National Ocean Service on Flickr.


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