Your Incubator is Broken…But it’s Not Your Intrepreneur’s Fault


Getting organic growth projects done in medium and large firms is hard work.  It’s even harder when you’re doing it in addition to your “day job.”

These projects are often accomplished  by setting up an internal incubator.  This space is typically well removed from the main “cube farm,” which allows the product team member/ innovator the luxury of working on their project full time – typically while getting educated on how to build new-to-the-world products and services from very skilled innovation mentors.

As the innovator, it’s a very heady time: You have the full backing of your management, your day-to-day agenda is set aside and you complete your proof of concept.  You are one of the stars at the innovation fair and get to pitch to management.  

You graduate…success right?

Then it all ends – abruptly.  And you are back in your day job with a “new job.”  

You are now the expert on “innovation” in the business group, and in addition to your “day job,” you’re trying to get your carefully incubated idea scaled, as well.

You try harder, but it just seems like the finish line is moving further and further away.  You consult your innovation coaches in the incubator, and while they are encouraging, they can’t give you a recipe for success.  The reason it’s so difficult, is because being a leader and contributor to the success of projects and ideas initiated inside the team’s normal processes is quite different from giving birth to a “new to the firm” insight or opportunity that is catalyzed from your intuition, insight and observation.  In the “normal” development of your products and services, you can fall back to authority of process and commonly held “truths” regarding your firm’s business model, distribution channels and clients.

These natural inclinations will only push you farther from your goal.

While the incubator can help you create a much clearer and validated embryo of your project, in most cases it’s up to you to do the hard work of iterating within your team to develop your early stage idea into results.   The facts are that re-entering the product group with a project to scale is much harder work than the job you had before your incubation rotation.  When I break this down with clients, we work on four main roles, which must be applied together.  You must be equal parts architect, champion, catalyst –  and all while holding firm like an anchor.   It is a set of leadership skills you have yet to develop, because you’ve never had this set of challenges before.  Done well, these new skills set you up to be a strong advocate for growth in your firm.

But sadly, the most common outcome is that in 180 days, the imperatives of the day job have swamped out the flame of innovation.

The good news? There is a way forward.

The reason this is such a common experience, is that there is a coupled and complex set of challenges that need to be addressed before, during and after transition.  The complexity comes from the fact that this sets up as both an individual and team dynamic that needs to be addressed before and during each of these times.  

To get ahead of this natural “wall,” it is important to be direct with both the innovator and the team about what that first period is going to look like and how they can all help to make it a success.

The time of reentry is the most critical point for many innovation-oriented breakthroughs, as it is the time that resistance and expectations peak together.

For the innovator, it’s important to share that while they are likely already an accomplished leader, they are highly likely to have gaps in the above individual competencies for leading the team through implementation.  By addressing these while still in the incubator, there is time for identification and coaching in the blind spots, before the workload gets overwhelming.

By working through a Complete Growth Leader assessment,  we can isolate those areas of strength and blind spots that we need to build up.  We go to work on strategies to use their strengths to shore up those areas, and coach methods to find team resources to offset any remaining items.

For the team, it’s important to know that ramping an innovation program is unlike any typical program that they work on.  Their usual project is built around enabling new features, reducing variation and completing optimization for cost and performance.  An innovation program needs to be built around risk reduction and speed to validation at scale.  This drives a different set of metrics, decision making and resource allocation.

I have found that equipping the team with the STRIDE framework for planning and executing the work to be effective for both providing a path and installing needed vocabulary to be able to talk openly about what can seem like an uncomfortable and ad hoc journey.  By using this tool through the reentry, resistance, while not going away, is greatly reduced.  

There is a lot of power in knowing that there is a process, that it involves periods of designed and constructive conflict, and that when done well, leads to powerful insights and results.

When this training occurs before the innovator re-enters the team, it sets up a much cleaner “launch,” and helps everyone  get synchronized for a “fast start.”  While underway, it allows management to ask better questions and be both supportive and constructively challenging in a helpful way.  Finally, when used in after-action review meetings, it allows for rich takeaways and learnings to be distilled and made part of the playbook for the firm.

I’ve helped several stalled teams this year with this two-layer approach to successful incubator exits.  Without some formal work on these two layers, it’s not if, but how much time, money and resources will be lost.

If you’d like to discuss having a diagnostic tune up for your team launch process with an objective view, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.

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