Creating a Culture of Innovation

By Robert Wolcott

July 23, 2013 •


“If you don’t have a group like this, you need to get one,” Robert C. Wolcott a partner at Clareo said. “That is, a group of people who are dedicated to going out, meeting, bringing in and translating what they are finding outside the company.” Robert recently moderated the panel, “Creating a Culture of Innovation through Emerging Technologies and Partnerships” hosted by the Chicago Executives Club. Panelists included: Rik Geiersbach, Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Boeing; Nina Nashif, Founder and CEO of the healthcare startup accelerator Healthbox; Marshall Toplansky, a Managing Director at KPMG and Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of the clean energy company, LanzaTech.

The discussion centered on developing capabilities to generate, absorb, and implement innovative ideas within companies as well as developing a company culture of innovation. Below are some insights from the discussion.

Absorptive Capacity and Partnerships

In discussing how companies can increase their exposure to peripheral trends impacting their industry, Nina used the example of Healthbox’s partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. In an effort to expose their employees to new ways of thinking, 5% of all BCBSMA employees are involved with Healthbox. This has allowed the company to be aware of new ideas and even partner with startups.

The ways in which large corporations partner with smaller companies is changing. Corporate venturing, in some cases, requires an investment of talented people for the venture to succeed, not just financial capital. However, investing your best people comes at a high opportunity cost, which should lead companies to be more careful in how they invest.

As a startup company, you should not just partner with any big company. If you partner with a corporation that is not fully committed to helping get what you need, you can make some progress with your existing resources, but won’t have access to everything you need to commercialize and scale your product.

Short Term vs. Long Term

Building a culture of innovation is difficult because companies need to balance meeting the challenges of today with long-term challenges. Rik gave an example from the aerospace industry. Day to day, Boeing has great pressure to compete with Airbus. However, in the long term, Boeing also needs to pay attention to regional jet manufacturers in China, Canada and Brazil. It is a difficult balance to maintain, but as Rik said, “We need to orchestrate these tensions within our company.”

Signposts of Success

When asked how panelists can tell if they are succeeding in creating a culture of innovation, responses included:

  1. People aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions.
  2. People stop relying on their traditional view of what they should be doing and open themselves up to new ways of doing things.
  3. Companies focused on innovation find new metrics to measure their innovation efforts.

Jennifer from LanzaTech focused on the difference between invention and innovation. “You need to invent, but once you have invented, you need to get it out the door,” she said. Robert added, “The transition and scaling challenge is the biggest challenge corporations face today.”

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