Written by Annick Vandezande

“Once you’ve got CEO support, the ability to move fast and operate like a start-up are actually not that difficult to do.” That’s what Garry Lyons, Chief Innovation Officer at MasterCard and one of Forbes’ Next Gen Innovators, told my nexxworks Partner Peter Hinssen when he was asked about innovating in a large organisation. He also pointed out “the benefits of being in a large established company with funding, a trusted brand and significant alternative revenue streams” compared to a small disruptor. So why is it that so many multinationals have so much trouble innovating?

What innovation wants – but most organisations ignore

Let me start at the very beginning. At the core. Every company has a human core: the people who live, breathe and embody your organisation. I’m not talking about your top management, though it certainly can – and ought to – be part of that nucleus. No, I’m talking about those people who “get” your company, your culture, your mission, your products and – first and foremost – your customers. It does not matter at which ‘level’ they function – hierarchies are so last-century anyway – or if they have Ivy League diplomas, or even if they are introverts or extraverts. What matters is that they are the true dynamo of your organisation, what keeps it running. You need to nurture and challenge them. If they grow, so does your company. So it is an absolute mystery to me why so few organisations involve this human core in their innovation strategy.

Innovation wants motion

Innovation is not a project. It is not a department or even “a team”. And it certainly is not some fancy 200-page consultant report that you can plug and play to magically refresh your company. It is not something that you can do once – no matter how disruptive the idea is – and then be safe for the next 10 or even 5 years. Innovation is an ongoing process and a flux. At the speed the current market is evolving, transforming your offering ought to be something permanent.

Innovation wants to be native

That continuous flow is exactly the reason why traditional innovation consultants so often fail. Yes, they can deliver a beautiful analysis about everything that is wrong in your organisation and what you need to fix. But they are and will always remain outsiders, who will never know your market, your customers and your situation as well as your core employees do. Secondly, if consultants tell an organisation what to do, it will never learn as much as when it would have found the solution itself through trial and error. And thirdly, we all know that what comes after a bulky report – the implementation of the change – is the actual hard part, even more so when the recommendations were created by outsiders.

Innovation wants an ecosystem

Innovation degenerates, dries up and disappears if it is cut off from the rest of the world and cooped up between your company walls. You need to `feed’ it continuously. It is about creating connections between existing concepts, services, solutions and products. Like the sharkskin-inspired swimsuit that Michael Phelps used to wear, a perfect example of ‘stealing’ ideas from nature and integrating them into the design of materials. (an aspect of what is called biomimicry). Or how Uber is ‘just’ the combination of three existing things: the infrastructure of cars, the infrastructure of smartphones and the infrastructure of Google maps.

In order to be able to make these connections, your employees need to know what is out there. Not just in their own market, but in other industries, cultures and countries. I love the example of how BMW’s iDrive system was inspired by the video game industry, and how Google keeps merging its technologies into industries that are foreign to its core business (like with project Loon and driverless cars).

It goes further than just being inspired by others, though. Innovation needs a network: it thrives where divergent companies collaborate. Like insurance company State Farm and carmaker Ford which developed an on-board system to analyse people’s driving habits together. But I’m not just talking about a product or services level. I believe we need to move beyond that: with top employees sometimes functioning as soundboards and advisors for other organisations which are part of the same co-creation network. So that they can exchange ideas about customer centricity, marketing, company culture or whatever they, themselves, are excelling at.

Innovation wants action

Most of all, innovation wants to act. It shrivels up in the face of long-term planning, careful strategy and risk management. It needs to make its hands dirty: get out there, try out crazy ideas on a small scale, learn from failings, extract the good, delete the bad, move on and become better and better through experimentation. It needs fun, energy and collaboration; not long boardroom discussions about KPIs and margins. This is where companies can truly learn from start-ups. Start-ups never outsource their `innovation’. They always `do it’ themselves. This is because they don’t have the budget for large outsourcing projects. Experimenting and implementing everything themselves is also what keeps them fast, fluid and resilient.

THAT is the reason why so many organisations fail at innovating, even though they have the budgets, the people, the customers and the network: they are ignoring these 4 basics that innovation wants. And, in doing so, they are driving it away and killing themselves in the process.

Image by Oscar Keys (Unsplash).

This opinion piece first appeared in the Dutch publication Trends.