There’s a repeated conversation that happens among corporate leaders, whispered in the halls of conferences and passed among friends like a rite of passage: “Watch out for the corporate antibodies,” goes the refrain. “They’ll kill your innovations faster than anything else.”
For some, the antibodies hail from the Legal department, ready to suffocate innovations under a mountain of red tape. Other times, it is the IT function, fighting back against what they perceive as a “shadow IT” outfit. Or, it’s Finance trying to force-fit mature-market metrics onto speculative bets in emergent technologies. A few months ago, I facilitated an Innovation Leaders meeting where there was an offhand comment about Procurement dragging its feet. The group erupted into a half-hour ranting session, with impassioned remarks by innovation leaders from at least eight different companies.
There are plenty of reasons innovators view the “antibodies” as villains. Core operating units tend to inoculate anything that’s new, uncertain, or unproven. Their incentives focus on short-term results, meaning they may willfully ignore (or even sabotage) projects with longer-term strategic importance. They tend to view everything coming from the innovation group with skepticism.
Yet success should not, and indeed cannot, be about who “wins” the eternal arm wrestle between core business and innovation. The best innovation leaders understand that corporate antibodies are the single most important lever for sustained relevance. Here’s three reasons why.
Innovation folks often think that “air cover” means hiding from the cold scrutiny of the antibodies. That’s a critical error. The best possible guardian angels are the antibodies themselves. We’ve watched the story play out dozens of times.
Take, for example, an industrial machinery company with an R&D division devoted to next-gen technology bets. They recognized the need to work alongside startups, co-creating the platforms that could power their next decade of growth. But the corporation’s standard partner-vetting process was geared toward working with other large companies – hundreds of pages of legalese, months of protracted negotiations.
The R&D leader could have charged forward, skirting the conventional safeguards – he had the internal clout. Instead, he chose to work directly with Legal to build a new contracting framework geared explicitly for agile, flexible relationships with startups. The internal time investment to design and enact this framework took months. But the goodwill it created has persisted for years, powering a cascade of hits that had continued through today.
Innovation programs tend to come and go. Some are christened as separate units, some are outgrowths of corporate R&D or Technology. Others are incubated within business units. Real success, for any of these groups, entails staying around for at least a few years – the shelf life to incubate important innovations. To achieve that staying power, internal relevance and legitimacy are key.
A few years ago, a young leader at a multi-business financial services firm was promoted to become the head of a new innovation team. This was part of an explicit mission directly from the CEO for digital innovations ranging from blockchain to AI to facial recognition - toward building the financial system of the future.
Despite the fancy new innovation building and a fast-growing team, the smartest thing this leader did in year one was to sit down with Finance. From the CFO, she sensed hesitance to commit publicly to the innovation mission. Her goal was to protect the team's flank, by defusing political land mines before they became problems.
A year later, she’d accomplished far more. Her CFO conversations evolved into a joint project to track the value of innovation's contributions across the company. That opened the door to persistent collaboration between Innovation and Finance, and a growing relationship built on trust and transparency. In years two and three, the innovation leader found it was much easier to begin launching more exotic bets – with active support from the CFO’s organization.
Many Innovation groups produce a raft of activities but deliver little ultimate value for the business. In most cases, that’s because they lack committed internal partners. Most projects incubated in R&D or Innovation can't escape the event horizon of their own department unless they have help from other parts of the company.
The leader of an Advanced R&D unit at an American chemicals and materials company has internalized this principle. His rule of thumb is that every initiative showing promise needs an active sponsor in the business. Everyone in their 200-person “new products hatchery” drinks the shared culture of collaboration with their partners around the globe.
Over the years, they have transitioned from a sideshow organization ignored by the mainline corporation, into a powerhouse launchpad for new products and new markets. The larger their portfolio becomes, the more they are able to extend their relationships with business stakeholders. It is a virtuous cycle that radiates success all around.
In summary, a word of caution: Following these examples by rote will rarely produce results. Each organization is unique. Sometimes you will find a willing partner in Legal, sometimes in Finance, other times in IT, or elsewhere. But wherever you manage to cultivate good relationships, remember they will be among your most valuable assets.
We’ve seen far too many innovation teams fly high, angling toward the sun, basking in the CEO’s glow as they chase every trend on the horizon. But then the music stops: leadership changes tack or the company goes through a re-org. That’s when the antibodies show up and clear the system of foreign contagions.
Partnering with core operating groups is much more than a shrewd survival strategy. The antibodies grant access to the central arteries of the company’s circulatory system – its money, its talent, its marketing levers, its external relationships. Working together with business groups is a crucial part of any innovation plan – the exit strategy for nearly every ambitious project hatched by advanced R&D or corporate innovation.
Make the antibodies your ally, and I look forward to toasting your success at an awards ceremony. Keep them at arm’s length, and good luck with your next job search. It’s a difficult path to tread. But it’s the only one that works.