“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.


Introducing our New Book: Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation through People

Companies lose their most talented innovation people all the time, due to frustration and the many challenges they face.  Not only is it a loss for companies, but also a threat because, as we show in the book, most of those people find jobs in innovation roles for other companies.  This doesn’t need to happen.  We know better.

We’re proud to announce that our third book has just been released.  Based on four years of research in eleven companies, and interviews of nearly 180 people, we’re making a bold claim in this book. And that is that Innovation has to become a business function, just like R&D, just like Marketing, just like manufacturing, just like engineering, in order to succeed for the company.

Ample evidence exists now to show that the processes, metrics, governance, organizational structure, skills and talent needed for breakthrough innovation are substantially different from those required of other business functions and processes.  Companies need to develop expertise in Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration.  Each is different in its own right. Companies also need to have a Portfolio of breakthrough opportunities, organized into domain areas, or strategic buckets, tied to the company’s vision of the far future and what it will be bringing to the market then.  Each domain area must have a variety of projects percolating along. They’re little experiments within Discovery to flesh out an opportunity landscape of that domain.  In incubation, they’re experiments to test out market, technical, resource and organizational uncertainties associated with each emerging business opportunity.   All of this needs to be orchestrated and led.  And it needs some support help, in the form of strategic coaches.

That’s 12 new roles. Yes. Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration roles at the project, domain, and portfolio level.  Add an orchestrator, strategic coaches, and the Chief Innovation Officer and you’ve got them all.  In Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation through People we describe each of those roles, how to select people to fill them and how to measure their performance.  We also provide suggestions for career paths for innovation experts.  Companies should not be losing these people.  We need to figure out how to create a permanent source of expertise for breakthrough innovation, and how to strengthen it over time.  Champions are great, but we need to move beyond that as the answer.

R&D directors…there’s hope.

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a person who’d attended one of our workshops many years ago on how to build innovation management systems with staying power. He had moved from his former company about two years back to assume the role of Vice President of R&D for a much smaller specialty chemicals company. He had a group of about 40 people, and had recently been given the directive to double the size of his group and add a second location. He wanted to talk through how to design the R&D organization now that he had this opportunity.

It was such fun to help him design an organization from the ground up.  He was concerned about how to allocate the expertise across the two locations, and how to ensure there was a critical mass of expertise across specific technical areas.  He was concerned about how projects would be managed and how the relationships with the Business units would be handled given the additional staff.  But the part of the conversation that was the most fun was how, now that his group was growing, he could build in some expertise for longer term research.  He knew that, even with the added talent, he would not have enough to span all of the technical areas they’d need to invent their breakthroughs for the future.

Ultimately he decided to incorporate technology scouts who would scan universities, start-ups, and other external sources of discoveries and inventions, and help develop partnerships between them and the R&D group to leverage that technology in ways that suited the company’s future needs.   His current mandate is to serve the needs of the company’s business units, but he’s preparing for the future. When the time comes, he’ll be ready to start to build an incubation capability.

I came away with two thoughts: First, R&D isn’t going away, as so many say it is.  Discovery doesn’t always happen inside the company’s boundaries, as we know.  The open innovation model can work. While large central R&D labs are under threat and have been for many years, smaller and medium sized firms are getting in the game more and more.  Scouting is important.

Second, organizational design for R&D affords the opportunity to set up the company’s potential to manage for the short term and the long term at the outset.  It’s not the whole story, to be sure, but getting Discovery right is certainly a start.

Welcome MS Tech Commercialization Students!

School has been back in session for about a month now.  One of our programs, the Masters in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship, is all about breakthrough innovation.  They learn how to manage projects that are very early stage technologies, with potential to offer real value.  They use the Learning Plan, the Technology Translation table, Patent Mapping, and spider diagrams.  They develop skills in interviewing scientists about their discoveries to ferret out potential applications that they then pursue, as budding incubation specialists.  They trace how emerging technologies are disrupting industries and launching new ones. They start companies, and they learn how established companies manage for breakthrough innovation.  They learn the law associated with partnership development and intellectual property management.  Needless to say, it’s a cool program.

Even more interesting is the students themselves.  They’re our most eclectic bunch.  They come from engineering, all walks of science, and even architecture and the digital arts. They see opportunity everywhere.  They share a common interest in finding big solutions to big problems.  One team is exploring a new business model for salt water batteries as a source of energy storage in emergency conditions.  Another is looking at models for carbon capture and re-use. Others are working with faculty in our school of science to explore medical clinics’ interests in a new method they’ve developed to detect which cells in a tumor are most likely to metastasize. Still others are working with RPI’s Lighting Enabled Systems and Applications (LESA) Center to pursue a broad range of applications for a new sensor embedded lighting system.  There’s a team working on identifying ethical issues associated with commercializing a sampling of emerging technologies. We’ll be posting their finished cases on this blog.

This year they’ll be traveling to Silicon Valley and to Washington D.C.  to understand the cultural and policy angles of our country’s innovation system. Their program director is infusing in them the confidence to go beyond one project, one start-up, one first job, to think about economic and innovation policy.  They are up to the task, and it’s great to have their energy, their intellect and their curiosity as part of our Lally community.

Losing one Colleague, Gaining many others: Breakthrough Innovation Scholars around the World

This summer we lost our friend and colleague, Professor Lois Peters, who passed away suddenly.  Not only was her death a shock, but leaves such a gaping hole.  She was a major force behind the Radical Innovation Research Program at RPI, a wonderful professor of innovation, a prodigious intellect, and just plain fun to work with.  She was a true partner.

Over the years, Lois and I began hosting a number of visiting faculty and post-docs.  She worked with them more closely than I have, but now I have the bittersweet pleasure of taking that up.  This year we have hosted scholars from Australia, Denmark, and Japan.  Last year, we hosted from Denmark and Australia as well as a Professor from University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and are making plans for his former student to complete a post-doc with us in the next year.  I sat on the Ph.D committee of a student from Canada recently as well.

Everyone is interested in breakthrough innovation. We’re making progress on many issues, and now we have an opportunity to learn about the global differences in our approaches to managing it. Again, it’s time to set up these functions in companies.  We have a small but growing supply of educated students, a much better understanding of how to make it happen, and the need to implement what we know.

Lois….you would be so proud.

Introduction from Corporate Entrepreneurship

It’s such great fun teaching students who want to become intrapreneurs, and how to help companies get better at enabling innovators.  Most of our students are very early in their careers, and are pummeled with the idea of becoming entrepreneurs as soon as they set foot on campus.  So they join our Corporate Entrepreneurship course with no idea of what to expect.

Much of the course is devoted to showing them what doesn’t work.  It’s disillusioning for them, for sure.  But as we go through the different approaches to developing a sustainable capability for breakthrough innovation and corporate renewal that companies have tried over the years, students begin to understand the need for a complete management system whose purpose is to innovate in big and meaningful enough ways to enable corporate renewal.   There’s no better way to get them engaged than to have them read about breakthrough innovation and corporate entrepreneurship in the news, interview intrapreneurs or Chief Innovation Officers, and write about it.  So, I hope you enjoy this series of posts from students at RPI’s Lally school.