Corporate Explorer: How Corporations Beat Startups at the Innovation Game
Corporate Explorer is a book 20 years in the making. It started when I
(Andy) attended an IBM Strategic Leadership Forum at Harvard Business School led by Professor Michael Tushman and Professor Charles O’Reilly. Mike and Charles were engaged to support IBM’s Emerging Business Opportunity (EBO) program. I had just joined IBM from McKinsey and was assigned as an internal consultant charged with supporting these nascent businesses.
One of the leaders we worked with was Carol Kovac, then general manager for IBM Life Sciences, and our archetypal Corporate Explorer. In just five years, Carol, Jamie Coffin, and the team created something remarkable: a new multibillion-dollar business inside a corporate behemoth. Living this story, I was blessed with the opportunity to learn first-hand what it took to succeed. This has forever shaped my belief that it is possible for corporates to beat startups at innovation, even if I also learned it would not be simple.
The IBM experience was core to Mike and Charles’s popular book Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma. They describe how IBM and other corporates successfully (and unsuccessfully) ideate, incubate, and scale new ventures. Their book makes a powerful case for an ambidextrous organization that can manage businesses at multiple stages of maturity – some driving operational effectiveness in the core business, while others explore new potential opportunities in the way IBM did in the EBOs.
In parallel to this, corporate innovation has become something of an industry as more and more companies invest in accelerators and labs. A global innovation industry has developed mostly focused on innovation tools, techniques, and methodologies. Many of these are excellent. We have great respect for Tom and David Kelly’s work on design thinking, Steve Blank and Eric Ries on lean startup, as well as the vital difference made by the agile software development movement and its focus on teaching corporations a new way of working.
Even so, two things were missing. First, most innovation methodologies make very little distinction between innovating as a startup and doing so from within a corporation. That is a big gap. Managing innovation in the context of working in a corporation is fundamental to its success. Second, there is a presumption that the leader of corporate innovation is a facsimile of a startup entrepreneur. They share much in common, but these are completely different roles. A Corporate Explorer must translate methodologies designed for one context and try to make them work for theirs.
Out of these insights came the notion of a book focused on the individual Corporate Explorer. These are people who do what others say is impossible: lead disruptive innovations from inside large corporations. Sometimes, they do not get assigned to this role, other times they start the ball rolling themselves. In all cases, Corporate Explorers see an opportunity, build support for action to capture it, and make it happen. They do not wait for permission; they mobilize others into action. That is leadership.
Corporate Explorer is a work of synthesis, bringing together what we have learned from others, and from our own experience as consultants, educators, and researchers. The work that we started at IBM has continued through Change Logic, a firm that we co-founded in 2007 together with Peter Finkelstein. Change Logic has worked with some of the firms described in this book, along with many others. These clients have taught us everything we know about how to be a successful Corporate Explorer or senior executive with the task of helping them succeed.
Our thanks go to the many Corporate Explorers we have met over the years. Specifically, to those that have contributed time, experiences, comments, and ideas to this book. These include Carol Kovac, Krisztian Kurtisz, Balaji Bondili, Kevin Carlin, Tony Montalvo, Claire Croke, Colin Lyden, Fiona Treacy, Mike Mayes, Jason Lynch, Yoky Matsuoka, Sebastian Jackisch, Sara Carvalho, Venu Gopinathan, Colin Ritchie, Erich Kruschitz, Lukas Mayrl, Patrick Magnee, Christopher Widauer, Chris Brenchley, Lorna Keane, Brian Donnelly, Bob Barthelmes, Sagi Ben Moshe, Osamu Fujikawa, Nakajima Teruyuki, Shige Ihara, Edica Lin, Uwe Kirschner, and Michael Nichols.
We are also indebted to the executives that have taught us so much about corporate innovation, most of all Vince Roche and Andreas Brandstetter, who shared many insightful comments with great generosity. We also thank Martin Cotter for opening the door to new possibilities at Analog Devices and being a great thought partner. We have learned so much from our clients, special thanks to Yusuf Jamal, Olivier Dumon, Gaby Appleton, Ron Mobed, Jamie Coffin, Tomer Zvulun, Aicha Evans, Sergio Putterman, Alexander van Boetzelear, David Nanto, John Greco, and, of course, Bruce Harreld, for the opportunity to start this journey.
Our Change Logic team has been a constant source of ideas and support. This book is very much a team effort. Our colleagues deserve credit for all that is good in these pages. Deep thanks to our partners at Change Logic, Christine Griffin and Kristin von Donop, for allowing me to be absent for so long in 2021. Thanks also to colleagues past and present, Aaron Leopold, Eugene Ivanov, Jo-Ann Sabatini, Nishi Gupta, Alina Cowden, Vincent Ducret, Alexander Pett, Elspeth Chasser, Tamra Carhart, Andres Echeverry, Daryl Dunbar, Curtis Rising, Kevin Moruzin, Lucas Wall, Brendan Hodgson, George Glackin, Ulrike Schaede, Peter Ainley-Walker, Jason Rabinowitz, Wendy Smith, and Noel Sobelman.
I have been very fortunate to have guidance and feedback from some outstanding friends and colleagues, who spent time reading and commenting on the manuscript. Thank you, Lisa Wade, Peter Robertson, Brian Woolf, George Glackin, Michele Martin, Carol Kovac, Noel Sobelman, Vincent Ducret, Diana Shayon, and Narendra Laljani. I am also enormously grateful to our research and editing team, Vanessa Ceia and Elissa Chase. Only I know how pivotal they have been to the evolution of this project. Everyone named is entirely blameless for any flaws in the book, though they are likely to have contributed to its most useful insights.
Writing this book during COVID gave it a special context and it may not have been possible without it. I was at home, not traveling for the first time in 20 years and benefited from the support of my wife and companion, Tristan Boyer Binns, as well as encouragement from our dear friends Jim Ball and Anita Diamant.
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