Coding a Nifty Innovation Unit

Harvey Cohen is the Founder and President of Strategy Analytics. He spends a lot of time with CEOs, and one of the concern he keeps hearing is: ‘How can we speed-up disruptive innovation?’

Meeting for breakfast in Paris, we chatted freely over this topic. From this casual conversation emerged a few tips, and 4 pillars we would use to build a smart innovation unit.


Disruption cannot happen in the mainstream. What Vijay Govindarajan calls the ‘performance engine’ is built for efficiency, not for innovative breakthroughs.

Neither can you turn an orthodox into a disruptor. Look at incumbent operators: their DNA is made of quality of service, reliability, and an historical sense of public duty, it’s unnatural for them to follow up with ‘quirky software’ that start-ups invent.

You need new skills, somehow an ability to forget the past in order to create the future. You need born a disruptor, concurrently stubborn and flexible, focused on the innovation challenge.

Innovation thrives on autonomy, because autonomy is mother of motivation: when innovators feel the creative initiative is part of their belonging, you’re running for feat. Once trust established, let the team lead the team.

Creative Tension

Creativity path is facilitated in a framework mixing stretched goals and inspiring disciplines.

Stretched goals mean ambitious expectations, and short deadlines. Speed has an intrinsic virtue: the faster you are, the better you become. One can always say: we could have done better, should we have had more time… but we might also not have gone the whole hog, and lost our way.

Innovation teams take internal forms (skunk works, innovation unit, creative lab, intrepreneurship, mentoring start-ups in a corporate incubator) or incubate externally (spin-off, essaimage that you will later buy in like Cisco, innovation contest, open innovation on demand, innovation community).

Small is beautiful: small innovation teams hit the nail. By aggregating all necessary skills to design a functional module (feature team), you move much faster (rugby approach) akin to sequential tasks transferring from one department to another at idling speed.

Feature teams impact is magnified by team spirit. By assembling product marketing, design, development, and customer research talents, not only is your innovation timeline sky rocketing, but you are framing team’s spirit and identity. Collective intelligence is tremendously activated. Success is at hand.

True innovators are willing to become innovation experts, committed to ‘learn to dare’. Innovation is cultural design:

  • It is rooted in culture of innovation: risk-taking, environment of trust, creativity as a corporate values;
  • It rises on top of substantial innovation literacy, and borrows to a startling cohort of innovation leaders and passionate thinkers.

Innovation management is a disciplined experiment and a collective endeavor: innovation is about testing assumptions, translating results into shared knowledge, measuring progress, and iterating. Relentlessly keeping simplicity in mind, and nurturing an open dialogue with users (design thinking, lean start-up).

Shrewd leadership strives to translate concept into elegant experience, orchestrate collective intelligence, look up for allies and partners, and ensure knowledge circulation in closed loop.

Strategic alignment and pollination

Once idea captured, and concept staged in a demonstrator or ‘pre-totype’, a tricky part is to bring innovation’s value inside the corporate co: fear from cannibalisation, overfueled roadmaps, unpredictable results, there are numerous reasons for resisting change.

Prepare necessity for change from upstream, through permanent connections, in parallel to development of your venture. Gain decision makers sponsorship, and maintain an open dialogue.

Capture needs and problems of the mainstream. Figure out the corporate innovation strategy, aim to strategic alignment:  understand your company’s roots, innovation right chemistry brings change while remaining yourself. Innovation unit performance shall be measured on a dedicated yardstick. Nevertheless it is worth sharing a selection of innovation goals with corporate, and raise parent investment in your initiatives.

Corporate must have a clear view of your innovation unit. Your identity reflects in your innovation portfolio. Balance Disruptive Projects which are your ‘raison d’être’, with Quick Wins which will build your credibility, and exploration mock-up, Design Probes, which will feed the dialogue and your pipeline.

By launching parallel innovation streams, you’ll be in a position to harness value connecting the dots. Winning formula might result from combining attempt #1 and attempt #2. That’s wise innovation portfolio management.

Active portfolio requires license to kill, and learning how to die: celebrate failure, fail fast, learn fast, and bounce higher.

Product innovation goes hand in hand with business model innovation. Let your service find its audience, and seek to monetize value once it gets traction. Test different models on small scale, be inventive on this dimension as well. Look up for a bold business model sticking your new product, following Amazon’ steps.

Spread innovation culture: set-up idea contest, innovation hub for advice and conferences, and co-creation challenges to pollinate creative mindset and infuse innovation literacy.

Modular design

Autonomy, expertise and good will are sometimes not enough to let the innovation flow move forward. Relevant tools unravel collaboration: that’s the whole point of API, designing with, rather than designing for.

Design a component or functional module, embedded in multiple services through an API, letting others spring back, and build value on top of your platform. ‘Eat your own dog food’ by testing your API in your demonstrator.

API design is not technical only, it’s a  ‘design thinking’ approach:

  • Reflecting an enticing Vision, Meaning, and Target;
  • Bottom-up vs Top-Down Break-Down;
  • Organic, Expandable vs post-service Exposure;
  • Staging innovation intent;
  • Cornerstone of Innovation Ecosystem.

Collaborative platforms are now whopping because they unleash:

  • Agile service infrastructure;
  • Radical adjacency moves;
  • Externalisation (limiting management complexity);
  • fluid core‘ (skills adapting with times, seeing new roles in new markets);
  • Multifaceted cooperation.


Elastic enterprise‘ is when businesses connect in automatic ways via platforms, points out Haydn Shaughnessy.

When combination of product experience,  business sharing, and API platform drives upwardly customer base with fulfillment, prepare to scale.

Search for the self

Are you the defendant of a collaborative model, designing an open platform, a product aimed at generating creative developments, like Android, Google Glass, or mind-blogging APIs like Amazon, NetFlix, Facebook, Twitter unwind? Or is your mindset more like ‘I’ve anticipated every customer need, and designed corresponding experience’ device?

Do you enjoy relying on others, be surprised by them, or are you wielding control freak influence, and holding the secret? Are you Google, are you Apple? Are you Jeff Bezos, are you Steve Jobs? Innovation journey often resembles a search for the self.

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    future of TV - Leading by InnovatingNicolas is a senior VP at Orange Innovation Group. Serial innovator, he set-up creative BU with an international challenge, and a focus on new TV experiences. Forward thinker, he completed a thesis on “Rapid Innovation”, implemented successfully at Orange, and further developed at He tweets @nicobry

Nicolas Bry

Serial innovator, Nicolas has set up creative units for new business at Orange, Club-Internet, and SFR. Nicolas created crowd platform, Orange Studio for Intrapreneurs, and edits Open Innovation blog International speaker, entrepreneurs & startups coach, innovation teacher at Telecom ParisTech, HEC & CentraleSupélec, and freelance consultant (ECC). Follow him at @nicobry.




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