Organic Innovation: Why Using Carefully Chosen Internal Subject Matter Experts Increases Your Odds of Success


I was leading a session for a group last week and going over how to build a strong, impactful, cross-functional team.  During this discussion, one of the group members asked why I recommended so strongly that highly-influential internal candidates be sought out.  It was one of those questions that triggers a set of scenes in your head like an old-fashioned, flip book movie.

Let me share a couple of scenes with you.

I recall when I first started working in breakout teams.  I had assumed that all you needed was a group of high performance, forward looking team members to build strong new offerings and the firm would neatly follow along.  It was my naive view that the freshness and customer reception of the new offering would be sufficient to pull it into the mainstream of the current business, and as they say in Britain, “Bob’s your uncle” and you have a vibrant new product or service.

As a young manager, I had seen that model used a couple of times with modest success in tightly-managed product groups that were in the midst of completing breakthrough products.  The unique part of that work was the system was biased to be open to the new and unique, and it was a heady time when the coffers were full and they gave the design team significant leeway in creating solutions.  This was not normal.  In this kind of environment, adoption was never an issue, so it took a back seat.

I then transitioned to a role that involved taking amazing R&D off the shelf and finding new applications and markets for it.  I was able to find the leading edge applications by seeking the right venues and thought leaders, and assumed that it would be easy work to share the potential of what I found with a relevant business unit and chalk up the win.

I was in for a big surprise.  I had found a great application, tested the client demand, and it seemed obvious to me that the business unit alignment was also solid.  I had done my homework, made my case and was soundly rejected.  There was simply too much risk relative to the stack ranked list of investments that the business unit already had in place.

Having had my hat handed to me, I backed way up and thought about what I might have missed.  The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became – I hadn’t built the internal support I needed prior to approaching the “top of the house” business leaders. So when they vetted the work I had completed, it came back with at best a “not sure” or a “don’t believe it” email response.

That’s when in a flash of the obvious, it hit me.  I needed to build acceptance of these new products and services in layers.  My team and I would still do the new value prop identification work, but when it came time to build the business case, we would immediately reach out to influential members that were either in the business unit, or were key advisors to the leaders of the business unit.  We then went to work as a cross-functional unit, and de-risked the new value proposition together.  We didn’t hit a 100%, but our internal sponsorship rate zoomed.

This approach to developing the high-level concept, then mindfully building sponsorship, has a number of applications.

1. Ever wonder why dropping an “entrepreneur” from the outside into a business unit and expecting big things doesn’t work?  The mismatch is just too large: one layer is moving at light speed, the other is paced by the business.  They don’t speak the same language and have very different expectations of quality and risk.  A startup entrepreneur has never had to develop influence in a large scale business team, and quite honestly, sees that kind of thing as beneath them.  There needs to be very thoughtful work in the influence structure prior to the pairing.

The solution to this always involves building two relationships with the entrepreneur. Assuming there is willingness, the supervising EVP needs to have a come-to-the-alter session with the entrepreneur that involves this question: are you here to scale?  If the answer is yes, then you put a small team reporting to the entrepreneurial leader who can help him or her work out not only the what, but the who and how.

2. Similarly, have you ever seen an incubator set up with great fanfare that doesn’t produce?  When building the internal “incubator,” the choice of participants is key.  The typical choices tend to be either “spare” managers with a technical specialty or “hobbyists” who are good at finding new ideas.  While both of those can be ok choices, the success of the unit is going to rise and fall on its ability to laterally connect into the core business.

The number one coaching point here is to make sure that there is a mutual objective that draws the incubation team and implementing business unit team together.  It can be the excitement of doing something new, sharing in the financial success or simply an opportunity to have a highly visible impact.  There are many additional insights to building these lateral connections (see this five-post series here), for example arranging for some rotational assignment of key influential talent from the business unit.  

3. Whole books have been written on “tech transfer.”  My years of taking things off the “technology shelf” and getting them into the real world taught me that technology actually does not transfer – people do.  By choosing “T” people strategically, you can meet the firm’s goals and expand individuals’ career paths as well.

One of the most important and underutilized approaches is to map out the chemistry and pairing up of key influencers on both sides of the “know how” that needs to transfer.  An early investment in getting the face to face relationships worked out will pay massive dividends when the going gets rough.

Most firms significantly over invest in creating new and groovy and under invest in creating the influence paths needed for their hard won breakthroughs to find their way to a customer and fulfill their potential.  By designing the value path with as much diligence as the new product or service, your investment impact will zoom.

What are your experiences?  Drop me a line at, give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

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