Over the past couple of weeks, I have participated in several conferences / events, to better understand key trends in corporate innovation. Each event was excellent, but also very different in scope, audience and approach.

They included; “The Back End of Innovation” in Orlando; “National Multifamily Housing Council OPTECH conference” (think apartment developers / managers technology and innovation focus) in Las Vegas; “Leading In An Exponentially Competitive World” executive session in New York City and the Kantar BrandZ Top 100 event also in NYC. Despite the obvious differences, a series of key themes were consistently presented and discussed, which should be relevant to any innovation leader:

A Renewed Focus on Disruptive Innovation…

Many corporate innovation programs have been around for a few years, and have focused on developing incremental improvements (often to generate quick successes and a sense of momentum). However, increased competitive pressures for business units, a constantly disrupted marketplace and sunken innovation investments are (rightfully) forcing program leaders to focus more on developing disruptive / exponential ideas. Incremental improvements no longer cut it.

Even at the NMHC event, all CInO participants at the panel I facilitated confirmed their focus on disruptive innovation. Specifically, Stephanie Fuhrman (Managing Director, Technology Services, Greystar) referenced their companies continued focus on a pipeline of disruptive and incremental ideas, to ensure the company’s ongoing success.

…On the Edge of the Organization…

There was also a consistent focus on how to organizationally manage and support new opportunities. The latest thinking falls into two camps, both focused on the edge of the core organization:

  • Connecting with startups; building direct connections back to the core organization through a combination of direct investments, reporting processes and (of growing importance) through employee networks
  • Dedicated teams of individuals; working on new disruptive opportunities, separated from the core (either physically, or through reporting lines). These teams can include employees (selectively chosen from the core) and / or external resources allocated through an agency. The focus of discussions was around selecting the right personalities and skills to work on these efforts.

Innovating on the Edge is now seen as the standard approach to developing radical, new ideas, and was referenced in detail by Yuri van Geest in his session at the Exponentially Competitive World session.

Interestingly, I saw little reference to Open Innovation, which was previously a big topic of conversation. It seems that the concept of open innovation has morphed into these startups and “on the edge” activities, at the expense of direct customer engagement. My guess is that the ubiquity of Design Thinking and customer centric efforts within organizations renders these efforts as less-necessary and just too difficult to manage.

…With a Drive Towards Execution of Ideas

At the Kantar event, Eric Salama (CEO, Kantar) referenced the need for any program to focus on execution. Even though he was specifically referencing brand values, the sentiment was echoed across a range of events that I attended. My take is that the days of empty gestures, endless ideation sessions, VC investments that fail to scale and incubators that struggle to develop implemented ideas are numbered.

The CInO Role Is Being Taken More Seriously

At all three events, I spoke with a range of CInO’s about how their roles have changed, and the attention and support by corporate leaders. Across the board, I kept hearing about how corporate / BU leaders are transitioning from just talking about innovation as a concept and now seeing it as a real opportunity to ensure the ongoing survival of the organization. With this, the following points were consistently raised:

  • More focus / pressure on execution of ideas (see above point) and achieving hard (financial) results
  • More resources being allocated to the innovation function
  • Increased collaboration / governance from Business Unit leaders
  • The career paths for innovation professionals is changing (and all other professionals by the way), with more value being placed on a lattice of skills, rather than a linear career path (Rita Gunther McGrath referenced this at the Exponential Innovation event).

Innovation Communication and Employee Engagement is Expanding

I have been talking about this topic for some time now, and it was gratifying to see this turning into more action within successful corporate innovation efforts.

Several CInO’s confirmed their renewed focus on communicating effectively to employees around innovation efforts, in an effort to build cultures that are more open to developing new ideas. In addition, these efforts are being used to support the development of new ideas and recognize those that played an active role.

In an excellent presentation at BEI, Katherine Manuel (SVP-Innovation, Thomson Reuters) provided a detailed outline of her team’s approach to communicating, training and engaging employees around innovative approaches.

Be Wary of Relying on Data

Across all events, there was a consistent focus on the potential of big data, and conversely, how to use this to unlock new opportunities. At the BEI event, Malcolm Gladwell presented a divergent perspective by dissected university rankings. The message was clear, we need to always have a humanistic perspective when looking at data, as it’s too easy to just assume that all data is correct. The merging of data and a rational perspective is where true value is created.

The innovation space continues to evolve and shift over time, but attending these events, from a range of perspectives, provides a great opportunity to see how success is being generated by innovation professionals. Let me know if you would like to discuss any of these trends either by commenting to this article or contacting me directly (

About the Author

Anthony Ferrier is a well-regarded executive, entrepreneur, advisor and thought leader on corporate innovation. He has worked with organisations in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia to develop effective innovation strategies that guide organizational change and build cultures that encourage the development of new products and solutions. Anthony has worked with organizations such as Transport for NSW (Australia), Department of Defence (Australia), Bristol-Myers Squibb (US), Fidelity Investments (US), Pfizer (US), Volkswagen (Sweden), Ergo Insurance (Germany), etc.. He currently leads innovation and commercialisation efforts at Swinburne University, and previously led The BNY Mellon global innovation program, as well as co-founding two successful tech-driven consultancies. He has a Master of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

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