Out of all the buzzwords you hear in business, “innovation” is one that’s both big-time revered and more than a little misunderstood.

When it comes to startups, innovation is part of the DNA. As you’re creating a minimum viable product, you have a built-in “build, measure, learn” loop that helps you iterate and innovate quickly. So, it’s no surprise that large companies, often concerned with staying relevant, are looking to build in elements from successful start-up companies into already well-established businesses. This has led to an increase in innovation projects in the corporate and public sector, with specific teams and labs working to develop new ideas, workflows, products and services that will fulfill a specific customer need.

Generating ideas is one thing—finding the right problem to solve is where the real value is for companies. It’s the difference between innovation theater—all show and no tell—and ideas that actually generate revenue. In order to get there, you’ve got to be willing to ask yourself the right questions. But what are those questions?

To find out, we chatted with a strategic partner of Carex, Scott Resnick. Scott’s a notable figure in the Wisconsin startup community. Known as “Madison’s tech evangelist”, Scott is was a founder and first Executive Director of StartingBlock Madison. He’s also the co-founder of Hardin Design & Development, a startup focused on full-cycle software development and enterprise web creation. In his current role as Chief Operation Officer, Scott oversees business development, national partnerships and marketing, and revenue for the company.

Hardin’s worked with big companies — American Family Insurance, Chicago Tribune, Disney, and Mercedes-Benz among them — to build new and innovative business practices that will revolutionize their industry. Right at the outset, Scott says he asks these six questions to companies interesting in pursuing an “innovation project” or bringing start-up elements into their space:

What do you mean by “innovate”?

Often, we find that companies get hung up on innovation because they’re looking so hard for that New Big Idea. And sure—there’s no doubt that innovation means new ideas, but it can be so much more accessible than that. Sometimes, it’s looking through a lens of improvement—”what can we do to improve the experience for our customers?” Other times, it’s seeing solutions to things that your customers, consumers, or partners don’t even realize are problems or challenges for them. Or, innovation is simply accepting that the way you’ve been doing things hasn’t yielded the results you’d like, and having the courage to speak up and right that ship.

Figuring out what kind of innovation you’re going for might actually help break it down into a project—or a few projects—that are doable.

Why is it important to align with the startup class?

There’re so many appealing things about startups that motivates big companies to adopt their traits: innovation, creativity, growth mindset—the list is endless. What about this mentality is important to build in your company? Is it process- or project management-oriented? Is it instilling a “fail fast” mentality in your employees? Is it creating a culture of honesty when things aren’t going right? Or, is it idea generation? Understanding what specifically you’re looking to take from the startup mentality and how it can be applied to a larger company or business will help determine what’s you start to implement.

What are you wanting to accomplish with this project, or in addressing this problem?

If it’s sounds simple, it’s meant to be. Innovation is a key element of the startup mentality, and for good reason — innovation gives companies a competitive edge, attracts great talent, and gives an opportunity to address a real need in the marketplace.

Figure out—at the highest level—what innovation will allow your company to do. Is your goal to capture the share of the market with a new product or service? Is your company at a point where it’s adapted for survival? Is there an opportunity your company uncovered that you can’t walk away from and have to act on? Asking yourself what you’re looking to accomplish and what the end goal is even before you start planning that Innovation Day.

Is your team in complete agreement on the project’s intent?

Let’s say a project is kicked off, and you’ve built an internal team to see it through, but you haven’t come to a consensus on its primary goal. An employee assigned to the project might have their own goals, entire teams might have different objectives, and your managers might be distracted because they’re managing this work in addition to all the other stuff on their plate. We’ve seen it before—what happens is that a project takes a long time to complete, doesn’t accomplish what was intended, or doesn’t get done at all.

Checking for understanding early and often—“is this still what we committed to at the outset?”—and empowering your team to keep everyone honest as the project moves forward is the best way to make sure everyone’s aligned on the goals.

If you’re hoping to partner with a company, what are you hoping that partnership accomplishes?

From a startup’s perspective, working or partnering with a larger company on an idea can be unrealistic right away—the bigger company is either asking for insurances that the startup doesn’t have, or there are partnership requirements that the startup just can’t meet. We’ve also seen situations where senior management from the bigger company wants a very specific objective, and then has an output that creates something else entirely. The startup they’re working with is then confused about what the larger company is looking for.

Getting clear and specific on what the working relationship will be like, what you’d like the outcome to be, and what the challenges or barriers are to working together up front is essential for both companies. Another thing that’s so important: transparency. If you’re an established company, giving the startup you’re working with true insight into the needs of a company and your customers, the relationship will be solid from the start.

Will you need new talent for this project? If so, what the plan for hiring and retaining new talent?

Any innovation project is going to take time and resources. If you don’t hire specifically for the project, you run the risk of overwhelming and burning out your regular staff. But we’ve also seen the other side — companies hire for a project, they give someone a cool title, and that employee thinks they’re going to do X. And, for the first few months, it’s all good—the company is new and interesting. A few months in, something happens. Maybe there’s a lack of vision or foresight with the project and the cracks start to show.

If employees see that there’s a vision but a lack of alignment in leadership, they get bored and uninspired. Pretty soon, they’re leaving your company before they’ve been there a year in hopes to find work that’s more aligned with their expectations. To combat this, again, your management and your vision for the product has to be aligned 100%.

Innovation is top of mind for many companies, and deciding to dip your proverbial toe in the water can have some great results—as long as you’re intentional and clear about what innovation means to you, what problem you want to solve, and how you design your teams as a result. These questions can help get your leadership aligned, get buy-in from your teams, and make it a lot easier to hit the ground running with a great idea that’s bound to disrupt your market.

Shameless plug: if you’re got a strong plan for your project, and are looking for a team that can help you with recruiting top talent, Carex can help. Shoot us a quick message and we’d be happy to chat.

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