Innovation Learnings from Stanford

I completed a Corporate Innovation post-grad program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business this year. It’s like an online mini-MBA specific to innovation and is undertaken by executives, entrepreneurs and consultants from all over the world. The program is named ‘LEAD Corporate Innovation’ and takes one year to complete, or two if you take your time.

After graduating this year I visited Stanford’s campus for the first time this month. I hung out there for a day, met up with people from the program, played with prototyping tools at the, walked most of the campus, and experienced the still-quite-new Knight Management Centre. It’s an incredible place.

My visit got me reflecting on the program. This wasn’t a tick-a-box post-grad exercise for me, nor was it my first exposure to concepts like design thinking and rapid prototyping – I’ve been implementing these most of my career.

I was studying to expand my thinking and skillset. I wanted to sharpen my approach to conceiving, creating and commercialising new ideas. 

I see things differently now, and it’s a really good thing. Stanford has shifted my worldview. The ‘Stanford way’ has stayed with me and I find myself applying the methods instinctively, which is the whole idea.

The program also refreshed my perspective on innovation and how to do it well. Here are some corporate innovation observations and takeaways from the program. They’re simplified pretty dramatically to make them fit into a paragraph or two. A lot more theory, rigour, case examples and insights underpin each of these.

Many companies don’t fund innovation properly

Nothing reveals how to commercialise a new venture properly like seeing the exact financial statements of successes and failures. Seeing exactly how a number of ambitious corporate innovations and worldwide launches were funded demonstrated how desperately under-funded (and under-resourced and sometimes under-planned) so many innovation initiatives are. 

The best route to market (and the customer) is probably the fastest one

I have a user experience design background, so this was a cool realisation. In the world of UX design a ‘test and learn’ approach has long been championed, whereby a prototype of a new digital product is in the hands of real customers as early as possible. The same is true for innovation. Prototype, test, learn, repeat. They’re both founded in design thinking.

The earlier real customers can touch and feel a prototype, the better. Three months is more than enough time to find and scope a problem, work through ideas for new products/services to solve the problem, identify the best idea, create and test the first prototype, and figure out a business model. 

Stories are an under-rated innovation tool

Stories? Yeah, stories. The whispers that people pass on between each other inside and around a company. The stories, myths and rituals a company develops are critical to building a culture of innovation and helping new startups, products and services punch above their weight. 

When it’s used the right way, a storytelling approach to product development can significantly improve the innovation from the outset. It also helps solve the internal communication about what is being created, for whom, why, and how it changes the world (and the future of the company). Internal communication is a big innovation killer (right up there with inadequate funding, innovation labs, and a culture of consensus). Which brings us to the next point.

A culture of consensus might not get you anywhere

The best ideas are often the ones most people think can’t be done. So how do you make them happen? Of all the companies and examples we studied, one firm and cultural trait really stood out. The spirit of this takeaway can be adapted just about anywhere.

Non-consensus is the innovation secret of Qualcomm, one of the world’s most consistently innovative companies. It’s a culture of exploration and non-consensus that drives the firm to innovate not once, but always. Qualcomm invented the mobile Internet and is currently bringing the world 5G. It’s an innovation machine that fosters a culture of constructive debate and spirited disagreement. The firm deliberately hires engineers and people at ‘both ends of the spectrum’ who won’t agree.

Qualcomm’s people are encouraged to explore, to try foolish ideas that might not work. Somewhere between genius and foolish is where the innovation happens – the genius can’t happen without the foolish. These ‘moonshots’, or high-risk innovation projects that are truly groundbreaking if they land, have not just resulted in world-changing innovations. Maybe more importantly, moonshots have given life to a wildly ambitious culture of innovation. 

Deliberately hiring people at both ends of the spectrum is a deliberate means of creating a specific type of culture. Without necessarily going to this extreme, fostering constructive debate and ‘proving it can be done’ by prototyping instead of talking ideas to death is a principle most companies can apply. Qualcomm is also a brilliant example of funding moonshots and explorative innovation.

Fund it like you mean it, take the fastest route to market (and the customer), incorporate storytelling in product development, and foster debate and a culture of ‘proving it can be done’.

Again, these are way over-simplified and there’s a lot more rigour underpinning each principle. It doesn’t seem fair to package up such a valuable year into four little takeaways. Aside from these, there are stacks of other learnings across leadership, innovation, finance, business models, culture and prototyping. These feel like the most relevant to share here, though they’re just a start. 

I hope these principles are useful for your next innovation. If you’d like talk them through, let me know!

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