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How can a corporate innovate like a startup?

Sunday, January 21
by Michael Humblet

How can a corporate innovate like a startup?

How can a corporate innovate like a startup ?

Innovation is hard as you need to right people, with the right product on the right time. However, there are processes and methods that you can use to optimise the innovation process. 

Nick de Mey, founder of The Board of Innovation, explains the strategies they apply in large corporates. 

Michael: “What we are going to discuss today is that many businesses have a core business. What they want to do is they want to grow outside that core. In this interview, we will discuss tips and tricks and pragmatic advice on how to optimise the innovation process. So, Nick, how do you approach similar projects?”

Nick: “First of all, It depends on the challenge of the company. There are two types of companies:

1) There are companies that are doing quite well. They are in a luxury position: they have money and resources, and they just want to explore new opportunities. That is the positive way of working.

2) There is also a more urgent way of working if you have a company that is already in decline for a few years. In that case, there is more pressure from budget, but what is more important to me: the most talented, entrepreneurial and innovative people have already left the company. If you start a project in a similar company, it will be of course more challenging. In essence, the challenge will be the same since they are looking for additional growth. The way of working, on the contrary, will be different because those companies lack resources, especially people.

Consequently, they will need more support from our side to inject innovation and new forms of creativity. If a company still has very talented and innovative profiles in the organisation, our role will be more on the facilitation of the innovation process itself.” 

We educate people on how to look for new opportunities.

Michael: “So there are two types of companies. Let’s imagine the best scenario: a company that has plenty of resources. What do you do?”

Nick: “We will first of all look at their previous projects: what have they already done? The first thing we will do is some exploration to be with those people from the company. We always start very pragmatically: not just reading trend reports etc., but we educate people on how to go out to find new opportunities. We give them websites, databases, resources, new ways of looking at the world.

So the first part is that we focus on ideation. Show people how they should look at the world. What we call the inspiration part. That is maybe the soft part of innovation. The tough part comes after that. You need to make the right selection.

What is most valuable, what fits best with the strategy of the company. And secondly, you have to look at the innovation capabilities of the organisation. Do they have the budget in place, do they have the right people? You can start a really ambitious project, but if your company is not ready for it, all your efforts are in vain.”


Michael: “I have seen a lot of large companies saying: we need to innovate and they start with it, and actually they have no clue or they are really slow. So they start pulling the people out to set up a new entity. Is that the way you work?”

Nick: “We see a mix of results there. More and more organisations create an innovation lab, a separate entity, next to the core organisation with some positive results. In the last years, many organisations have created such entities.  The problem is that this approach might be successful, it is difficult for the organisation to adopt their way of working to what is happening in this separate entity. So we now feel a need not to create fully separate entities but from day one to look for an approach that the innovation people can operate within the company somewhere and at the same time have some freedom to experiment. “

Michael: “I see that many large organisations are using the benefits of their large network. And the power of big companies is massive. That is where I see many small organisations struggling.” 

Nick: “It depends a lot on the type of projects you put in there. If it is a very disruptive radical idea, it makes sense to put it completely outside of the company. But most of the time the projects we currently work with are adjacents; they are outside the core, but there are still some links. It could be the same customer profile, they could be based on the same technology, but if there still is a good link with the organisation it makes sense to also find the link in the way of working and not just to put it separately.”

Michael: “Could you give an example of a project you have done?”

Nick: “We currently do a lot of work for ING. We work for the headquarters in Amsterdam, and across Europe, they have multiple initiatives. ING is in a challenging market so from all sides they are being attacked on their current offering. During the last 2 or 3 years, they launched 60 external startups. And we are guiding some of these programs at different locations in Europe. Our role could be a coach for these startup teams to help them make the right decisions. We also put a lot of stress on the business model: how do you make money with those new services. A third aspect what’s relevant for ING, but also for many other organisations, is that they want to build up innovation capabilities. Not just running innovation tracks on separate islands.  And then we are helping them to train the trainers, so people that need to adopt that new way of working and to train them so that they can adopt this new way of working and spread it around in the organisation.”

Michael: “One thing we have not mentioned yet is that innovation is a lot about people.”

Nick: “Originally when we founded our company we were too much focused on the ideas and the technology and the trends. I am educated as an industrial designer, so I am rather focused on products.  After the first two years, however, we realised that many of our projects were stalled or blocked somewhere in the process. The main reason was that we did not have the right people in there from the organisation itself. So soon we adopted another approach. We continued working on the ideas and the projects at some point, but at the same time, we put a lot of effort into managing and selecting the right profiles to be involved in that process. Especially for those organisations where the most talented people already left. There we put a lot of effort into training these people. There is, however, a limit to what you can do because you cannot always train people to become more entrepreneurial. For most people, it is a change in behaviour how they approach risk and uncertainty.

So by focusing more on people and culture, we have far better results. Maybe from our point of view, as outsiders, the projects are maybe less ambitious, but at least the projects that are launched are the ones that the organisation can adopt. Plus we make sure that the right people are involved there. By doing so, by running those projects at the same time, we try to keep an eye on who is involved there. Are they the right stakeholders, sponsors, decision makers and by tweaking on how they look at innovation, they might look different at other projects as well. Step by step we try to tweak the mindset of the people that make decisions in the innovation board or in the executive team of how they look at innovation projects. But of course, that is a slow process. Because the organisation needs to change as a whole and that takes time. For us, that means that projects become quite long. For some organisations, we are now involved for one year or more to gradually change the way people from the organisation look at innovation.”

More information:

The Board of innovation is an international office specialised in intrapreneurship & business model innovation. Board of innovation helps corporate clients like eBay, P&G, J&J, and Volkswagen to innovate like startups and to develop sustainable new revenue streams.

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Text edited by Karolien Selhorst. Find her website at or check out her profile on LinkedIn