When it comes to kickstarting innovation within the enterprise, many corporate change agents simply don’t know where to start. While they may understand the challenges facing the core business, it’s difficult to move forward when faced with the need to innovate across multiple business units, departments and products. If you’re stuck, there are plenty of lessons corporate innovators can glean from the startup world:

Pick One Problem and Solve It

It’s easy to reduce startup success to a laid-back culture and an open-office floor plan, but most startups succeed because they focus on simple things and create a unique solution to a basic problem. Startups, particularly those that look to partner with corporations, focus on a single pain point and solve it. Even breakthrough innovation projects can focus on solving a single core problem to build a business around, rather than delivering a comprehensive solution right out of the gate.

In risk-averse organizations, corporate innovators tend to try and gather all the possible data they can before getting started. This can often muddy the waters enough that innovators can’t even narrow their focus to a single core business challenge. Focusing on a small problem allows innovators to rapidly learn through experimentation.

Fail Fast, Learn Faster

Rapid solution development can make or break a startup; innovators typically have an extended runway to plan ideas on paper before testing them. That runway often causes innovators to try and seek every possible answer surrounding an idea rather than just putting a test-worthy idea in front of real users. Instead of producing several inexpensive experiments which may move an idea further (or prompt teams to kill it and move on), many innovators spend their runway gathering dubious insights on a whiteboard idea.

Successful startups know that competition is tough, product development is quick and trial-and-error is the fastest way to improve your product or service offering. Failing often and quickly means that the startup is trying; however, the failure is only effective when the mistake is realized, lessons are learned and the managers willing to evolve.

Find Customers Early

Innovators need to think long-term when they’re building an idea, and learn how it will affect and reach end-users. Like a startup, they must figure out the best way to put their idea in front of a target audience. Innovators naturally experiment on how a product will function, but it’s possible to create early-stage tests for the channels and platforms best-suited to reaching a product’s eventual customers.

Startups gain traction by embracing the fact they don’t always know who their customers are or how to reach them. They lean into that uncertainty and place a number of small marketing bets to rapidly test which move the needle or effectively communicate an idea, and enterprise innovators can do the same. Joe Bechely at Coca-Cola recently shared how making small tweaks to a customer-engagement campaign between two events helped increase fan interaction by 3,500% for a partner. While you may not need that level of change, innovators must constantly consider new ways to impact customers and drive value for the business.

Create Clear Metrics for Success

Just like startup founders answer to investors, innovators must remain transparent and open with executives regarding goals and progress. Corporate innovators need to keep executives aware of their progress in the same manner that startups keep investors informed about their gains.

Transparent communication around performance and learning are critical for maintaining credibility within the organization. The metrics you select should let you know – no matter if you are up, down or level – when action is required. Pick a single, valuable KPI which helps you achieve your milestones and move the needle on that proof point.

Build The Right Team

Hiring the right talent can make or break a startup, and the same applies for an innovation team – often starting with an innovation leader. Innovators often feel the need to bring everyone to the table throughout the process end up with “too many cooks in the kitchen,” and this can lead to stagnation or team paralysis. Beyond that, building an innovation framework requires rapidly testing and validating ideas; putting the wrong team to validate or kill a good idea can lead to easily missed opportunities.

For corporate innovation, the team you choose to pursue new projects can often be as important as identifying problems worth solving. In many cases, startups hire generalists with creative problem-solving skills rather than specialists. They need people with more than one strong skillset, so every part of the business receives the attention it needs and core problems are addressed. Most importantly, they select a diverse, well-rounded team that represents a realistic world view rather than a tunnel-vision mindset that can become detrimental to a business.

Has your business integrated any startup or agency insights within the enterprise? Let us know in the comments.


Geoff is a true entrepreneur. He’s passionate about helping companies find, build and grow their next big idea. He launched his first venture at age 16, when he started a computer store in a shopping mall in Sarasota, Florida. Since then, he’s built eight more companies.