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How To Run Your Innovation Team Like a Start-Up

by The Dieline on 01/17/2022 | 4 Minute Read

By: Chris White, This Way Up


Throughout my career in branding, I’ve had the pleasure of working with all kinds of clients, from tiny start-ups to global corporations. One thing that always strikes me is this—the most successful businesses, no matter their size, are willing to adhere to something akin to Google’s famous motto. 

"Move fast and break things."

It’s not revolutionary—big brands love to espouse start-up values, but that's often more about external swagger than it is about internal function. The major brands that succeed in capturing the agility of a start-up at scale tend to be humbler. They understand that the one thing start-ups and entrepreneurs get right above all else is their dogged commitment to serving their end-user through meaningful and creative problem-solving.

Yes, size plays a part—the bigger you are, the more red tape. But attitude plays a bigger one. In my experience, any brand—from the smallest to the largest—is capable of harnessing entrepreneurial energy by creating an environment as fuelled by creativity and solution-based thinking as any passionate small-fry start-up out there.

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That starts with an internal innovations team—a group of creatives, marketers, and product experts dedicated to incubating new ideas to keep a heritage brand fresh and create new opportunities in new markets. Results could be anything from exciting LEPs (think Baileys’ Pumpkin Spice, which graduated to a permanent holiday offer) or wholly new ranges( like Babybel’s recent foray into plant-based cheese).

When it comes to creative agility, a worthwhile internal innovations program gives big brands the space, the freedom, and the encouragement to take risks. Many companies have internal innovation teams which are technically responsible for pioneering new ideas and avenues for a brand. But the truth is that unless those teams function with the same grit, humility, and joy as a disruptive start-up, the resulting “innovations” tend to feel pretty copy-paste.

So, if you want to run an innovation team that can add value through a start-up mentality, here’s how you do it.

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Center the Product 

Since bigger companies tend to focus on filling a gap in their identified market or meeting category trends, entrepreneurs and start-ups almost always have an edge when it comes to the product—because delivering a great, disruptive solution is what keeps them going. That’s how we got the Googles, the Apples, and the Ubers of the world. At the start, all of these companies were scrappy, passionate idea hubs, setting out to solve a problem their people genuinely faced. The work was personal and focused on the product rather than the company’s influence. It's a creative advantage start-ups almost always have over more established companies.

Big brand teams can get lost in the day-to-day admin of innovating within the system and can lose sight of the essential role passion, play, and personal stake play in the creative process. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

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Collaborate With External Experts

One of the most successful big-brand innovation teams I’ve ever worked with was Danone’s brand accelerator team. 

To help the brand confidently launch products outside of its usual purview, Danone built a team of internal and external experts—from branding experts like me to chefs and members of their key demographic to help them think differently about meeting needs, solving problems, and creating exciting products like Marty’s, a line of allergy-friendly snacks. That went well beyond market and expert research—we weren’t just there to tell Danone what does and doesn’t work. We were there to work together to solve a problem, something you see a lot of in the creative industry, but very little of in large corporations where siloed departments result in disjointed product launches. 

Instead of bringing us in to comment on a narrow area within our expertise, everyone on the innovations panel got involved from the outset. That meant really working as a multi-disciplinary team and being able to collaborate on something that became bigger than all of us.

Start-ups do this all the time—it’s typically a result of their size. They don’t have a company full of experts, so they bring in outside help. Danone’s success shows there’s something in this approach for bigger brands, too. Getting fresh perspective keeps you on your toes, and ultimately that’s what keeps your team iterating and gives them a creative edge.

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Champion Creativity

The bottom line is that companies should be creating an environment that mimics the incubator that’s organically present for start-ups.

If you want your team to behave like a start-up—and for the sake of brilliant ideas, you do—then you have to make time, space, and budget for the process. You can’t force short-cuts to creativity, and you can’t cookie-cut the creative process. The sooner corporations accept this and grant creative space to their innovation teams, they’ll get even more brilliant ideas.

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