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10 insights into the challenges of corporate innovation, from this week's Innovation Leaders Forum in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 25, 2013 08:25 AM

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Corporate innovation executives from companies like Covidien, Chubb Group, and the Mayo Clinic got together earlier this week at the Harvard Club. The occasion was the 2013 Innovation Leaders Forum, organized by Imaginatik, a British software and consulting firm that has its main U.S. office in Boston.

The overarching theme: promoting new ideas inside a large, established organization can be pretty darn hard. Resources are often scarce. Business unit leaders can be hostile. Top executives may want to talk about innovation during earnings calls, but often don't make enough of a commitment to actually rolling out the best ideas. And innovation leaders constantly worry that if they can't move the needle on revenues or costs, they may find themselves looking for their next job.

Amidst that anxiety, there were some interesting insights about how large companies approach innovation. Here are ten comments that stood out. The last one is my favorite.

• "You need to create a sense of urgency [around innovation] at a gut level, not just a PR level." — Jim Euchner, vice president of global innovation at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. (He's pictured on the left, with Moises Norena of Whirlpool.)

• Phil Swisher, chief innovation officer at the private bank Brown Brothers Harriman, said that often, HIPPOs tend to dominate discussions about innovation (HIPPO being an initialism for the "highest-paid person with an opinion.") Running experiments is much better than simply taking direction from a HIPPO, as politically difficult as that may be. "Hypothesis testing is better than hunches," Swisher said.

• "Visuals are really powerful. We try to make the invisible visible," said Lorna Ross of the Mayo Clinic's Center for Innovation. That could mean studying and mapping communication patterns in the operating room during bypass surgery. "When you can show somebody where the problems are, it can be easier to get people to change," she said.

• Whirlpool Corp. chief innovation officer Moises Norena talked about "growing the core" (the company's major appliance business), "extending the core" (offering new products and services related to that core business), and "expanding beyond the core" (new, high-margin stand-alone businesses).

• "Don't talk about change. Change makes people nervous. We talk about pursuing new opportunities." — Swisher

• Signs that things aren't working, from Euchner at Goodyear: Innovation is not on the executive agenda. Political agendas kill projects. The company doesn't bet to win [investing sufficient resources.] There's a lot of deferring commitment, for instance, repeatedly requesting more analysis and data before moving ahead.

• Rapid, low-fidelity experimentation can help you test your assumptions about how a new process or service can work. That could mean, for instance, having humans temporarily perform the job that a new piece of software would do. "It can help you test assumptions about ways to improve." — Ross

• "Sometimes, the executive commitment [to innovation] just isn't there. The timing isn't right." — Luis Fernando Solis, president of North America for Imaginatik

• "Innovation that is additive [to the business] is more tolerated. Innovation that is subtractive, that takes things away, or destroys something, is threatening." — Ross

• "Don't distract the innovators." — Audience member

(Photo courtesy of Lora Kratchounova.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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