Corporate Innovation Frameworks


One of the fundamental problems that we have experienced working with corporations is communication.  The problem is not that there are not good channels for communication; rather, the problem is that prioritization is difficult in a world where there is no inflection.  This lack of context, inflection, and prioritization is a by-product of digital-only communication. 

For example, I may get a text from my client that says – “How is it going?”  or an email that says, “Can you take a look at this?”  These pieces of communication do not express the emotion behind the communication that would convey urgency, priority, importance, or other key inflections.  Is this a check-in that is basically a “hey” or is this a “I need this immediately”.

These emails and texts have no prioritization.  There is no context.  This is a fundamental problem with corporate innovation. 

When I talk to a CEO, they usually have three to five areas of innovation on their mind.  These are usually substantial changes to their fundamental business – systemic change challenges. For example, I think that robotization may change the way that our production line works.  This is a big challenge that requires vision and strategy. 

However, if I ask a middle manager or line worker, they are vaguely aware of these challenges – but cannot contextualize the priority level to fix it.  This context and relevance problem often leaves innovation frameless.  This lack of a framework leads to companies pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake – rather than really challenging the greater team to build macro solutions to very hard corporate problems.

These are exactly the types of problems that Silicon Valley struggles to fix because they require industrial knowledge and experience.  Thus, our greatest entrepreneurs and innovators often take on retail or consumer problems because they have better frameworks for understanding the system and potential ways to impact change.

We believe strongly that building a better framework is critical, then, for long-term systemic change within American businesses and the types of problems that corporations are best able to solve.

Putting a framework around corporate innovation is critical.  We typically start with context building questions:

  1. What is the most urgent problem (or small set of problems) that your firm is facing?

  2. What are you doing to confront this challenge?

Currently, virtually every city and every large firm in the Midwest is confronting the challenge of not enough trained or trainable talent available to replace or grow their workforce.  The proposed solution around the region is not systemic – it is tactical. We, my firm, or we, my community, will recruit more and better than another community.  This is a micro solution to a macro problem.  The macro problem is that there are not enough talented technologists being produced in this country to fill all of the necessary roles. 

However, this problem has not been contextualized into a strategy that puts all employees on the same page – giving them power and freedom to seek both macro and micro solutions. 

A macro solution is a long-term one that helps solve the problem long-term.  In the context of talent, one key solution is the creation of new training programs within and without the company.  This means that the company believes that there will be a shortage of technology talent that works within the Salesforce ecosystem.  Then, the company has a macro solution that may take ten years but over-corrects this problem such that there is over-production. 

This means that the firm is the beneficiary of a large, broad solution.   In the past, these solutions have usually revolved around K-12 or university education.

The reality is that these institutions have not kept pace with the production of technology-capable talent.  When I was at Nebraska Global, for example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Raikes School produced wonderful, smart students.  However, they were not revenue ready – meaning that they need to be finished for about twelve to eighteen months with experience before they actually were producing more than we were paying them. 

A macro solution solves this type of challenge.  It is long-term, systemic, and broadly applicable.  This means that it solves both the company’s and other companies’ (or individual’s) problem(s).  So, in the case of most communities, they have established a code school or some other means to band-aid over the problem.  This band aid approach is not systemic.  It is covering a wound.  A systemic approach would suggest not that we need a source of 200 students for my company – but a source of 10,000 students for our community.

A micro problem is one that is short-term and can be solved through the actions of one person or a small group.  Virtually all of the macro problems identified by the C-suite are receiving micro level solutions because they are easier to execute and measure.  Sadly, they don’t correct or solve for the fundamental problem. 

Instead, systemic change requires a totally new, different way of thinking about problems.  This requires more than talking about innovation.  It requires clear communication across the company regarding the fundamental systemic challenge.  And then an empowerment for all of the individuals to solve this challenge.

 This requires more than an email or a slide deck, but a consistent, concise expression of the challenge and an illustration by leadership of the urgency to solve such challenge.  Not every fire is worth fighting, so make sure that the corporation picks the right fire to build a new fire fighting system around.  Go from a singular actor to a bucket brigade of solution finders.  Empower everyone to help solve the problem on a macro level – and you will receive help and guidance on a micro level also.

Tom Chapman