How Corporate Innovation Fails

By Jeff Eyet, Co-founder of the Berkeley Innovation Group (BIG)

At a divisional town hall meeting at HugeCo, an executive extolled the virtues of innovation as the key to continued growth. Specifically, she highlighted design thinking as the process to generate new ideas and innovative solutions. To prove her hypothesis, she engaged the Berkeley Innovation Group (big) to infuse design thinking into their Intrapreneurship month.

In preparation, we joined multiple meetings with divisional leaders who emphasized the need for “blue ocean strategies,” “outside the box thinking,” and the importance of “getting this initiative right.” However, in follow-up email threads, these executives were conspicuously absent. Instead, they delegated the tasks, and thus the outcome, to middle managers.

On the surface, delegation is a common strategy for leaders with many demands on their time. However, in a fledgling innovation effort that runs counter to the process-based culture within HugeCo requires continued executive involvement to ensure adoption by the division’s rank-and-file.

Our fears about leadership’s absence were proven correct. Middle management lacked the strategic insights afforded by the division’s leaders. Thus, design thinking’s strategic role as the engine of innovation was reduced to a tactical role of a half-day workshop.

While many participants reflected on the inspirational nature of the day, without the presence of divisional leadership, the onus to adopt design thinking as the engine of intrapreneurship was lost.

Without participating in the design thinking kickoff, leadership will judge new ideas through old frameworks and simply reinforce the status quo.

This story highlights the key mindset shift required for successful implementation of design thinking: moving from being “inspired by” its potential to being “inspired to” take action and be the change. Design thinking is a “learn by doing” process that cannot be delegated to middle management like a technology implementation.

An impactful internal innovation challenge requires communication of design thinking’s strategic importance and reinforcement through weekly workshops and one-on-one team coaching to spark innovative ideas. Once those ideas are presented, executives must vote based upon clear selection criteria that mirror the principles of design thinking. Otherwise, this experiment will fail and rather than an indictment of the executive’s lack of leadership, innovation becomes the scapegoat, again.

About the Author:

Jeff Eyet is a radical diverger who prototypes through stories and applies these passions as the co-founder of the Berkeley Innovation Group (big). Working together since 2012, Jeff was Clark’s student at BerkeleyHaas, then rose to a lecturer position before focusing full-time on client work. He has led strategy work with Recology, UC Health, Mills College, and Dow Chemical and supported engagements with GE Health, GE Digital, Kaiser Permanente, Nissan, Paypal, and Abbott Labs.standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.