Corporate Innovation: Beyond Predicting the Future

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” – Niels Bohr

The Decision

Imagine that you are a key decision maker at the dominant communication network in the world, having successfully grown through astute acquisitions and network effects. The company’s market value has increased by more than 100x in a short period of time and you are now clearly the market leader.

Along comes a new startup with a proposal, actually a founder and his angel investors who are short of money and are looking for a face saving exit. They are asking for US$100,000 in exchange for their business. Of course, their business has no revenue and their new technology looks like a toy. Your internal team is far superior and has concluded that there is nothing interesting. The chances of this new toy market taking off are extremely small. Finally, even if you needed to compete with them, you could move quickly. Therefore, you dismiss them.

This is no imaginary case. The dominant communication network is the telegraph, owned and operated by the Telegraphy Company. The investors are Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders. The founder is Alexander Graham Bell and the toy is the telephone.

Of course, it turned out that the incumbent underestimated the founder and his investors, the toy market was not a toy after all and even when the Telegraph Company entered the telephone market it could not win, finally transforming entirely to become a money transfer business.

Problems and Solutions

Why is story from history particularly relevant today? All around the world, incumbents are vulnerable like the Telegraph Company. A downward spiral can begin anytime as the number of startups continues to grow. What are the key problems and, more importantly, solutions for improving corporate innovation?

Problem #1

The smartest people are always and without exception outside of your company.

Solution #1

Build a diverse network outside of your company. This means more than simply going to conferences and collecting business cards. It means building strategic relationships with key players who have diverse networks themselves. The focus should especially be on people connected with early stage startups because that is the most diverse ecosystem and large companies are poorly equipped to try and engage directly with early stage startups.

Problem #2

The structure of power laws results in impact being more important than probability.

Solution #2

Focus on imagination, not knowledge. Knowledge deals with what has happened in the past. It anchors our reality, which is generally helpful for day to day living, but is relatively poor at dealing with power laws and high impact but low probability events. Imagination empowers us to think about the future without the constraints of knowledge. The best way to start building something like imagination is through habits, starting small at first.

Problem #3

The world is path dependent and small inflection points have significant consequences.

Solution #3

Experiment early despite limited information. It is tempting to rely on being a fast follower but, as the Telegraph Company found out, even reversing a decision quickly may already be too late. Instead, it is more helpful to have a portfolio of experiments. That way, you can be involved in potential breakthroughs before it is too late. In addition, even the unsuccessful experiments will result in some learning, building the foundation for better decision making.

Beyond Predictions

Rather than being discrete problems and solutions, all of these issues are related and can be integrated. The common theme is that large companies should to find ways to engage with the diverse startup ecosystems globally.

Of course, the actual mechanics of engagement are not trivial. Holding contests and events is helpful for marketing but does not really address the issue of deeper engagement. On the other extreme, starting a corporate venture capital fund is not simple. For most companies, the most practical route is to partner with early stage venture funds who can act as a bridge with startups.

Regardless of the implementation, all companies need to find a way to make better decisions about the future and their corporate innovation strategy in order to avoid being replaced by toys which transform into platforms.