Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Denise Olivares
Title: Strategy and Innovation Leader
Experience: Lexis Nexis, Cigna, Ullico and AXA Financial
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 20 years
LinkedIn: Denise Olivares

The success of corporate innovation often comes down to timing, particularly with ambitious new ventures. In her 20 years of new product development and marketing across numerous industries, Denise Olivares has learned the value of timing the market and setting a course for change within the enterprise. We spoke with Denise specifically about the maturation of intrapreneurship, how priorities differ from industry to industry and how corporate innovation will change in the coming years.

As a veteran corporate innovator, what did intrapreneurship look like 20 years ago?

Activities that are today classified as corporate innovation can be traced back as far as the late 1980s. From that time until really just a few years ago, corporate innovation priorities all centered around finding ways to better listen to and understand consumers and their behaviors. The companies at the forefront of innovation really understood that their long-term survival depended upon truly grasping what made customers tick and then creating solutions to meet customer needs and demands. It was fairly simple and linear at the time; corporate innovation was defined by customers telling companies what they wanted and what they needed and the corporation would then build a product to meet such requests.

So how, in your opinion, has corporate innovation most evolved since the late 80s?

Today, it remains important for corporate innovators to listen to what customers say and demand, but the burden is on us also to observe actions and sentiments and fill in the blanks where consumers are not speaking out loud or are unclear. In other words, consumers don’t always articulate exactly what they are thinking, wanting and feeling, but corporations cannot let such ambiguity prohibit innovation. To navigate this challenge, corporate innovators have become better listeners and are more diverse in how they capture the voice of the consumer.

Another advancement, one which comes under the heading of continuous innovation, is that companies today spend much more time (maybe even up to 50%) on introspection, attempting to make internal processes more efficient and conducive to process improvements that in the end will benefit consumers. Finally, corporations now implore innovation teams to find balance between small incremental innovations and disruptive innovation. While it is difficult to manage both at the same time, those intrapreneurs who can help facilitate ideation of new business models while simultaneously improving day-to-day experiences that support customer and employee retention are leading meaningful change and positive growth for their companies.

You’re in the minority of intrapreneurs, in that you have participated in innovation projects across various industries. In your experience, how much does industry impact innovation goals and objectives?

In my experience, industry is less important than timing. That is: when a corporation enters the innovation game often determines the focus and implementation strategy. How far ahead is the competition? How many startups are beginning to disrupt the status quo? Are we the trendsetter? Do we want to be a trendsetter or a fast follower? When will we have fully exploited the upside of our core capabilities? These are just a few of the timing considerations that I’ve seen dictate strategy, goals and objectives.

Using the healthcare industry as an example, innovation projects of years past focused heavily on product solutions to meet customer needs. But the recent evolution of HealthIT startups focused on either improving internal processes or driving easy and engaging customer experiences quickly showed many legacy healthcare institutions that new products alone will not meet consumer demand or help them grow long-term profitable revenue streams. Healthcare companies that today are first breaking into corporate innovation will look at how these events are unfolding and use them to guide their enterprise innovation goals and objectives from the very start.

In addition to timing, the size of companies also impacts decision-making. In small organizations, product and distribution teams often play a pivotal role in defining strategy and goals for innovation, yet they struggle to achieve them because of lack of resources and their need to be laser-focused on day-to-day activities. In larger companies, we often see that all functional business units can and often do commit some resources to innovation. Although operating as dispersed units, the larger companies have tremendous opportunities for knowledge and information exchange. If leadership is driving the culture and accountability, it’s doable.

Speaking of leadership, how have you seen leaders adapt an innovation mindset?

Primary stakeholders have realized that the world is rapidly changing and that every company in every industry is at risk of disruption or threats to their ‘bread and butter.’ Many C-Suites and boards etc. are ‘getting it.’ That’s why it’s become very common for companies to hire consultants to help establish innovation protocols, while many senior leaders also get hands-on training for themselves and their employees. Organizations and resources such as Stage-Gate International, SmartOrg, Jobs to be Done, Clayton Christensen and, among others, have cemented themselves as go-to’s for corporate leadership.

As a veteran enterprise entrepreneur, what does the future look like for corporate innovators?

The pace of innovation will continue to be fast and innovation expertise will be essential to senior leadership. Leadership will need to discuss many things at once: how to keep successful business models stable in the future, when to invest in incremental innovation and whether and how best to create the time and space needed to focus on the disruptive. At the same time, companies will have to continually refine the innovation processes that work for them.

Ultimately, innovation practices will begin to trickle down into how organizations think about every customer need, the experience the customer has, and the internal processes that support each part of the experience. Companies embracing these thoughts are the ones that will have the most success long-term.

Like what Denise had to say? Read other interviews with Visa, SunTrust Bank, Dell, Creative Growth Ventures, and more!

Know an intrapreneur with a great story to tell? Let us know.


Robert Berris is EVP and Managing Director of Three Five Two where he leads company strategy and day-to-day operations.