What’s the Role of Leaders in Continuous Innovation?

We’re very interested in the how established companies can go beyond buzzwords to sustain innovation. Brant Cooper, co-founder of Moves the Needle and author of The Lean Entrepreneur, grapples with this question, too, in his work with enterprises like Intuit, Capital One, and Hewlett-Packard. We asked Lisa Regan, writer for the conference, to interview Brant on the topic, and we’ve excerpted a great segment below.

At the conference, Brant will lead a December 9 workshop, “Introducing Lean Startup in Your Corporation.” We’re also holding a free webcast next week with Brant and Coca Cola’s Global Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Carie Davis, to explore the question in the title of this post.

Lisa Regan: At enterprise corporations, what’s the role of managers in guiding teams through entrepreneurial processes?

Brant Cooper: This is a big question. How do you mentor internal innovation teams? It’s not the same thing as managing. A lot of managers have a lot of experience, and they’re very successful within large enterprises. But their skill set really is around managing known processes, versus mentoring teams to try to discover new processes. We’re finding that to be a very tough nut to crack. We do some “train the trainers” work, so that they can then do the workshops themselves and teach. But even beyond training the trainers, it’s—how do you teach leaders to mentor the teams, not just manage them?

Here’s an example: In one of the sessions that we did at Intuit, one of the senior managers was said what was interesting to them is that they actually had to teach the teams how to persevere, that teams were willing to pivot too early. It was interesting, because in the startup world, I encounter something different. In startups, people push through no matter what the evidence might state, or they’re scared to even seek the real evidence. In large enterprises, it’s exactly the opposite. They get a little bit of evidence, and then they’re ready to pivot to the next idea.

Intuit’s senior managers were like, “Actually, there are all sorts of ways that you guys can test ideas.” You need that perseverance. The real innovation is not going to come easy, so you have to teach the internal entrepreneurs that they really need to iterate as much as they can before they “give up” and go off to a different idea.

To get there, you have to come up with new ways to measure these teams, so that on a week-by-week basis they’re making significant progress. It’s, “You will go talk to 15 customers in the next week,” rather than just making these promises about, “Oh, yeah. By the end of the month, we hope to have a dozen downloads.” The mentoring is really about teaching entrepreneurial teams to push aggressively.

LR: Why do you think it is that in the established companies, everybody gives up and goes, “Okay, let’s just pivot”?

BC: It’s a good question. Here’s another example at a client that we’re working with, a large consumer website. The President and CEO were urging the teams to move faster. So you had these teams running experiments, then they’d go, “Oh, I don’t know if we can do this.” And it was this senior leader that was going, “No, no. You have to do this. Push faster. Move faster.”

So it could just be that growing up inside larger, well-established organizations, you’ve been mentally trained to sort of resist failure. Or if you fail too quickly, you’d better do something else where you might be able to succeed. Maybe there’s even a fear of persevering, because how far do I want to push on an idea that might not succeed? Is that going to come back and ding my career? So a lot people inside these large enterprises are still trying to figure out, “Is senior leadership really on board with this whole idea of failing fast?”

That said, I’ve always been impressed that, when bringing these ideas to large enterprises, they have entrepreneurial people there. They have people that like chaos, that like wearing many hats and are problem solvers. And actually inside these large enterprises are pockets of agile programmers and design thinkers. So they already have these skill-sets at the grassroots. Those are the people that we can help identify, and teach them a little bit more about Lean Startup and how they can start running experiments. And then how they can teach it, how they can become mentors.

Real cultural transformation is going to take a while, and it’s going to be difficult. It’s not a linear journey. It’s not from here to there. It’s not short. Because you’re going to have ups and down and you’re going to come across these obstacles, and you have to go out and find mentors and you have to go and find allies, in order to overcome the obstacles.

But I think the rewards at the end are pretty big, especially if you’re the one that’s driving it, right? You’re sort of an internal hero. Hopefully what it does is help your organization create real value for their customers and you discover new business opportunities that result in real revenue. I think there’s a lot of upside. And the bottom line, my hope is that employees feel empowered to create new value for customers. I think it’s necessary for these big companies to survive, but it’s probably also necessary for these big companies to keep their best employees, as they feel empowered to not just follow the process inside their known market but to go out and discover new value.

This interview was edited and condensed. Catch Brant at The Lean Startup Conference and on next week’s webcast.

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