6 lessons for success as a corporate innovator

Be a corporate explorer and expand your impact at work

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Some of us are just born explorers. We cannot help ourselves from changing things about ourselves, our lives, and our work. This creates many opportunities for learning and growth but also has downsides, especially if you work for a large corporation. That impulse to explore often runs counter to what management appears to want and are willing to fund.

However, that doesn’t stop some people from carrying on, pushing the boundaries to deliver innovation, sometimes against the odds. These are what I call corporate explorers: employees who have an insight about what customers want and are persuasive enough to succeed in enlisting the support of managers with the access to resources they need.


Corporate explorers have led many famous innovations; they just don’t attract the same attention as an entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. But look under the hood of most corporations, and you can find evidence of their impact.

I met my first Corporate explorer at IBM almost 25 years ago. Carol Kovac and her talented sales leader James Coffin built a multi-billion-dollar business in the emerging genomic and proteomic research world without much fanfare or attention. At LexisNexis, Jim Peck led the creation of an entirely new big data “risk analytics” business unit that is now larger than the original company. In Hungary, Krisztian Kurtisz created an attacker brand digital-only insurance business that is starting to revolutionize the European insurance company UNIQA.


6 actions for corporate explorers

These are great stories, but how do you go from having an insight to leading corporate innovation? My new book, Corporate Explorer Fieldbook, is designed to answer this question. We have assembled over twenty authors from across a dozen companies to share their real-life experiences and reveal the key lessons others can use to replicate success. Here are six of the most important ones.

1. Start by understanding your customer’s desired outcome, not the idea you want to sell them. Successful corporate explorers obsess about how customers see the world, not what they want to sell. They try to understand what their customer wants to accomplish, what innovation guru Tony Ulwick calls the customer’s “Job to be Done.” In the book, Tony gives the example of someone boiling water in a kettle. The kettle makes hot water, but customers are seeking a hot drink. That is the job they want to do.

The world of innovation is littered with ideas that were technically brilliant but failed in the market because customers didn’t find them as useful as the innovator imagined. The best way to reduce the risk of failure is to understand what your customers are trying to accomplish and how you are going to make it better/cheaper/faster for them to achieve that goal.


2. Engage a wide population in generating ideas about how to solve the customer’s problem. One of the big differences between entrepreneurs and corporate explorers is that startups find it easier to think big and think differently. Most of the reasons for this are cultural and psychological. Whatever the cause, we need to fight against these constraints.

The key is to increase the number of ideas you consider for solving customer problems you have identified. Kaihan Krippendorf’s IDEAS framework is an easy-to-follow methodology for doing this. IDEAS is an acronym for the steps in the framework. Imagine achieving a seemingly unattainable goal. Dissect the problem, being sure to look from every perspective, not just the most obvious. Expand your options by gathering ideas from far and wide. Analyze the options, looking for those things that will have the greatest impact for the least effort—and sell the idea to others.


3. Validate your insights with customers in a disciplined discovery process. It’s tempting to think it’s time to start building the solution once you have a well-defined customer problem and a set of killer ideas for solving it. It’s better to validate your thinking first-hand with customers. It’s critical to gather feedback from customers; otherwise, there is still a risk of using inside-out logic that is intellectually satisfying but has nothing to do with market realities.

German engineering company Robert Bosch takes this risk so seriously that they have developed a methodology called the “Customer Validation Engine.” This requires engineers to do one hundred customer interviews to gather feedback on an idea before the business will consider investing in it. They estimate that this step has increased R&D efficiency by 50%, primarily by stopping projects that have no customer demand.


4. Build a story around the opportunity. If they are going to win support and access resources, corporate explorers need a story that communicates the problem and solution in a way that people find memorable.

In the book, George Glackin provides a step-by-step guide to building an “opportunity story.” This is the sort of story you can tell in a few minutes over coffee and that others can retell so that the news spreads throughout the organization. Good stories have a villain (the customer problem), a hero (the solution of your validated idea), a threat (what’s going to happen if we don’t act), and a reward (the value we can generate). They also need a personal anecdote that makes it real and immediate. Deborah DiSanzo at Best Buy Health explains the problem of using health monitoring equipment today by telling the story of her husband’s mild heart attack. Doctors wanted him to use easy-to-buy equipment attached to a mobile phone app to monitor himself. However, even for a technically literate adult, it was hard to do. Now Best Buy Health’s Geek Squad are solving this problem for thousands of Americans today, helping them get care outside the hospital as they recover from surgery.


A simple story with personal anecdote helps corporate explorers connect the brilliance of their new business idea with the day-to-day life of customers, bringing it alive for potential advocates and sponsors.

5. Run experiments to de-risk the investment, eliminating as many unknown variables as possible. In 2016, Mozilla, developer of the Firefox web browser, called time on its effort to develop a new mobile phone operating system to compete with Android and iOS. After years of development and reportedly more than $400M of investment, Mozilla concluded that although customers loved the new phone system, the market would not support another mobile OS.


The sad thing about the Mozilla story is that the new business was killed by non-technical risks that were knowable without a fully developed operating system. They had targeted low-end phones in developing markets. However, they could not engage an ecosystem of developers to create applications that would run on their new Fx0 phones. Google’s Android system had already established a toe-holder as an open-source solution.

Corporate explorers need to be careful not to invest ahead of learning. That means working carefully to validate each of the assumptions in the business model before committing to a major investment. This helps them pivot quickly in development before they create a “sunk cost” that makes it hard to change.


6. Be ready to engage senior leaders in high-stakes conversations to win their backing. Every corporate explorer faces a moment when the future of the venture is on the line. These are the moments when they need to be ready to raise the tension with senior leaders and make clear the consequences of failing to act on the opportunity.

Successful corporate explorers are persistent and persuasive. They work hard to engage key influencers with their opportunity story, winning them over one by one. This takes humility. The goal is not to show how clever they are but to make the senior leader feel like this was their idea.


Corporations can ultimately be more successful at innovation than startups. But their success depends on the individual corporate explorer’s ability to learn from these lessons and stories—and the willingness of senior leaders to see their value.

Andy Binns is an author, speaker, and corporate innovation expert. He is managing director of Change Logic LLC, a Boston-based strategic innovation advisory firm.