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Communitech is a 100.000 square feet space with 200 companies working inside, ranging from a one-person startups to global companies that have their innovation lab setup in the space.

What they are doing at Communitech is building a smelly, messy, and productive ecosystem, where some companies don’t make it while others manage to surface and grow.  Corporate tend to hate this, but this is how ecosystems are – some make it and some don’t.

When a corporate joins the space they get 500 square feet, and no walls around them. Also, when a corporate joins it is essential that the organization hires someone external to run their lab, preferably someone from the ecosystem.

Before Craig joined Communitech to help develop the ecosystem, he was an intrapreneur working for Canadian Tire. In this case study, he shares some lessons from his time as an intrapreneur:

Design for your audience

Phil was the guy at Canadian Tire who ran the mailroom. Everyday he would have to distribute a thousand packages and letters to five thousand people and he did so manually. One day the CTO gave him an Ipad and told him to figure out how to use it instead. A bunch of students built for him an awesome app in just five weeks.

However, the problem was that Phil has massive hands and there was no way he could use the buttons on a screen in the same way that those students did.

Lesson one is understand your audience and design for them.

They say risk management but what they actually mean is risk avoidance

Your legal team is going to talk a lot about risk management, but what they care about is risk avoidance. When your IP gets too close to another’s your project is most likely going to be shut down. It is important to play the same game and talk the same talk.

Always pay attention to who your stakeholders are (especially the ones with power) and what they care about.

Reserve the right to say when there’s a real problem and when someone wants to build something for free

When you give space for innovation people will start telling you about all kinds of problems that they face but what they actually want is to have something get built and they don’t have the budget for it.

When you manage innovation, and people come with ideas, you should have the right (and ability) to decide when there is a real problem to solve or just a “solution”.  

An example of a real problem is when Canadian Tire’s SVP of digital asked the innovation lab to help the company sell big products in small stores. What they came up with was a Virtual Reality solution, where customers can see and “feel” what they could buy without actually seeing and feeling it.

Going back to Communitech, they have a motto: “innovation happens beyond the surface”. For that to happen Craig makes two recommendations:

Hire someone from the outside

If you truly want to create disruption, it will not happen from someone who spent ten years in an organization. Have someone who needs to learn a little but about the organization but also doesn’t have to unlearn too much.

If you truly want to create innovation and disruption, you will have to unlearn everything you have learnt for the past ten years in your organization.

It’s similar to getting an MBA. First thing you need to do once you get an MBA is unlearn everything you learnt. It’s the same principle for innovation. If you’re truly going to make changes, you’ve got to get rid of the politics and actually build around what your customers want, not what you think your manager wants.

Build a repeatable process

This is similar to being a musician.

The most successful musicians are not necessarily the ones that are the most creative (and try out more drugs), but there is a strategy and process to becoming successful.

You need to have a process that walks you from how you are selecting ideas to how you are going to go into the market with your new product. You need to have clear guidance to the different steps: how are the labs generating value? What’s the process to generate that next level of investment to make it to a POC or a prototype? How you get your prototype into a sellable product? Most organizations don’t know how to do that.

Organizations often behave similarly to a dog chasing a car. When the dog finally catches up with the car, what the hell is it going to do?

What happens if you actually build a really cool minimum viable product that customers want? Who is going to build it, and operationalize it?

You don’t want your lab, or your innovators to also become your product managers. You need to build external teams or bring other people from the organization to become the product managers.

You also need to have an innovation council within your organization. An innovation council is a group of people that have a foot in strategy and a foot in operations. So typically, a VP level part of the organization that has enough visibility at the top to know what the board cares about, but still get power to make major decisions.

There are four things that this innovation council needs to be responsible for: they need to own the team, the process (and be strong and senior enough to stick to it), the transferability of an idea back to the organization, and lastly is to keep the alignment of innovation to the critical business outcomes, otherwise you will not get funding and build real stuff.

You can start this process with a pilot of about six months to one year. Craig encourages to do a pilot with a startup or SME. For that, you would need to create very clear rules – six month, fifty thousands dollars, and this is what you are going to do.

However, it’s not just about defining rules for the startup, but also to the legal and finance and procurement team about what needs to get done within those six month. The first pilot is going to be messy and long, but your next trials are going to last shorter and shorter. In order to stay ahead, you have to start going ahead!

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