If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got. Some say it was Henry Ford, others point to Mark Twain, and according to another group, it was Einstein himself. Regardless of its origin, what matters is the point it makes.

In a landscape over-crowded with not-to-missed-hypes and empty-phrases-full-with-buzzwords, it’s easy to follow the herd. In the corporate world, most companies wait for other companies to move first- have them make mistakes first, so that we can do better.

Playing it safe? Or the riskiest approach of all? These innovators prove it pays off to charter new courses in their quests to create new value and capture emerging opportunities.


Lowe’s: Telling the Right Story

Lowe’s Kyle Nel @ Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley

Lowe’s Innovation Lab starts with the assumption that we don’t live in a linear world – we live in an exponential world.

As a former neuroscientist and now the Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, Kyle Nel’s job was to understand how people make decisions and how to predict decision making. He found that the only way people ingest new disruptive ideas and apply them is through storytelling.

When he entered the business world, he was shocked – even though people were talking about using stories, the best it was a chronological series of events with facts kind of spat throughout. So he decided to give Lowe’s trend and market research data to professional, published, science fiction writers and give them different time horizons – 2 years, 5 years, 10 years down the road – to write an actual short story of what things would be like at that point and time.

With this new approach, when they present ideas to executive teams, these stories suspend skepticism and help them push through fear of uncertainty – and create excitement.

This storytelling format helped them push a huge innovation for Lowe’s – 3D printing. Their vision was for customers to bring a broken part into the store for Lowe’s to scan, modify and print. They tested it at one store and, even though the printer barely worked, people came in from 4 states over to use it.

Consequently, they teamed up with Made In Space and designed the first zero-gravity 3D printer for use in the International Space Station – and now Lowe’s tools can not only be printed here on earth, but in space as well.

As Kyle puts it:

‘If I had gone to my CEO and said, “Hey, guess what? I’m gonna put a 3D printer in the international space station.” He would have laughed at me and fired me. But because it was tied to a story, and tied to a specific future to which we wanted to be committed to, we could do anything.’

Schneider Electric: Expanding horizons

Schneider Electric is a $30 billion French-based energy technology and automation company. It’s a mature, conservative organization facing several challenges: high regulation, and a high level of disruption from IoT and renewables.

At Schneider, Paul Campbell realized they needed to focus on bringing outside innovations in. As they scouted startups, they ran into issues with access to resources – engineering, project management, business development.

So, they began to deconstruct. They created a Corporate Research Center Accelerator, and began creating their own processes, rules and regulations.

They dropped the standard 40-page procurement contract, and created a standard 4-paragraph contract with addendums. They looked at the strategies, needs, roadmaps and gaps for each business line, and placed their Accelerator right on the edge of where core business wants to go or expand, but may need help.

Then they began scouting startups, ideas, and technologies from inside and outside. They scout, onboard, and then incubate. They run customer pilots, develop and test proof of concepts, generate revenue. Once core lines of business see that the new opportunity can be profitable, the startups are transferred to core – but only once they are large and significant enough to avoid being ‘killed’ after transfer.

How does Schneider measure success? Revenue growth, cost reduction and brand equity — being recognized as an innovation leader.

According to Anand Sanwal, CEO and co-founder of CB insights, Schneider’s program is producing impressive results:

‘Schneider is forming partnerships with startups at a rate 4-5x above the previous best in class level. Very Impressive.’

Intel: Shifting Focus

Muki Hansteen Izora from Intel @ Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley

Intel knows what it’s like to miss out on innovation opportunities. Evidence? No mobile phones have Intel inside. They are an example of a company that could have gone the way of Kodak… but they didn’t, and now they focus on understanding emerging technology shifts, and on thinking systematically to anticipate these shifts and respond to them.

Intel shifted the way they evaluate opportunities and markets. Rather than focusing on market size, market share, revenue, GM and NVP, to thinking about their position in an ecosystem. They ask: where are they positioned in an interdependent network of stakeholders who are all trying to capture value for themselves, and how can they position themselves better?

In order to improve their rigor, Intel began to map and characterize emergent ecosystems of growth and value creation; identify and generate hypotheses for new growth opportunities; and, test these hypotheses through real world experimentation.

A small team led by Muki Hansteen Izora got together to form a small innovation lab. They developed an Opportunity Canvas to ensure they were rigorous in terms of identifying and understanding opportunities from multiple perspectives: not only experience and value perspectives, but also from a technical perspective; the ecosystem context; the market and competitive landscape; the broader global context and policy environments; social/cultural shifts and megatrends that may impact their business.

Another tool they developed was Catalyst Point Analysis – which issue would, if you worked on it, have a disproportionate impact on the other issues? Fixing that issue would be a catalyst point.

For some projects, they held a digital accelerator to conduct real world experiments with startups and ‘hackers’, throwing these issues in front of them and letting them have at it to see what happened if and when they managed to fix a Catalyst Point issue.

3D printing in space? A traditional French company now leading the startups game? From almost-another-Kodak to leveraging systemic technologies for transforming whole ecosystems? 

Whatever your current position is, as individual and as company, don’t get caught up in just following everyone else. As these innovators show, it pays off to pioneer. How will you start thinking and acting differently?