Best Practices for Corporate Entrepreneurship – #2 External Connectivity/Customers
If you’ve been following the last few articles, the theme has been exploring the unique endeavor of “corporate entrepreneurship”, its challenges and what it takes to get it right (I encourage you to read the last few articles for context).
Based on deep experience in helping others and doing it ourselves, we’ve identified some key “best practices” that are foundational to success. In the last article I highlighted the importance of "C-Suite Vision & Championing." This time we’ll zoom-in on another critical success-factor–the importance of “External Connectivity/Customers.”
Have you ever been in a large room with an echo? What are its characteristics? High walls and ceilings, enclosed space, reverberating acoustics, etc. In many ways, large organizations are exactly the same–a large population of employees, shared culture, similar vocabulary, tackling the same problems, and coming up with comparable ideas... While there’s no question this comes with a lot of strengths, it’s obvious that when it comes to innovation, it can be challenging… even deadly!
Why? Since we know that innovation thrives on external inspiration, non-congruent thinking, challenging paradigms, and seeking deep end-user insights… then listening to ourselves, group-think, and confirmation-bias are real threats that will happen unless we actively fight it.
How do we do that? Here are three success-factors that we’ve found to be critical in breaking out of the “internal echo-chamber”:
External customer-connections – it’s often surprising how few employees in large organizations have real direct interaction with customers (many times direct customer-interaction is farmed out to agencies or other third parties). It’s beyond “customer-contact,” it’s trying to share/feel the customer experience, targeting specific areas to understand it at a deeper behavioral level. Also, don’t overthink it. Start with the “users/customers” that are on your door-step with whom you can have direct contact (e.g. in your stores, your personal network, those your salesforce talks to every day, etc.). You’ll be surprised how much you learn from just “walking a mile in their shoes," doing what they do in their homes, in their workplaces, buying experiences, recreational activities, relationships, and more.
External networks – I once heard someone say – “in any given industry there’s about 200 people you have to know… and they know everyone else.” This is so true. Networks can be industry-specific (e.g. automotive, healthcare, financial, etc.), or subject-specific (e.g. big-data, sustainability, urban development, etc.). In both cases they provide excellent external stimulus, opportunities for analogous-exploration & thought-partnership, as well as insights to trends & latest breakthroughs (e.g. technology, startups, investment, etc.). Remember, it’s a “relationship-business,” so guard against the common pitfall of big organizations “who expect to only show up to a conference when they need something” (spoiler, you’ll be disappointed). The key is to become part of these networks, regularly plant & water the seed of interaction/collaboration, attending gatherings & events, initiating & maintaining relationships, contributing and interacting… for the long-term.
External expertise – getting a different viewpoint can often be supported by including external experts in your internal initiatives. Beyond bringing skills and specialization you may not have, they can be used to demonstrate aspirational capabilities and provide a different perspective/angle. They’re allowed to ask the “dumb questions” or have the “wacky ideas” that often lead to different ways of thinking. A variety of categories of expertise come to mind–methodology/approach, technical, academic/pedagogical, human dynamics (teams, facilitation, etc.). Again, the significant advantage is that you’re allowing “external experts” to participate directly in “your work,” thereby benefiting from their direct interaction & impact, rubbing shoulders with your people, and mitigating the risk of internal re-filtering or distortion.
In summary, innovation thrives with stimulus that comes from outside of ourselves. It challenges established norms and creates new ways of thinking. If this is so vital for us as individuals, how much more for large organization whose natural tendencies are to become introverted & ingrown. Using the principles mentioned above, what will you do to fight to stay externally connected?
(also published on my personal blog at www.johannesmutzke.com)