Robert Wolcott is a senior lecturer of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Kellogg School, and co-founder and executive director of Kellogg Innovation Network. He sat down with Kellogg Insight to discuss the challenges facing corporate innovation groups, and how—with the right people on your side—they can be overcome.

Kellogg Insight: In a recent article published in strategy + business, you offer five pieces of advice to corporations looking to scale their innovation initiatives. What spurred your article? What prevents these initiatives from growing?

Rob Wolcott: A lot of innovation initiatives in the past have died early deaths after three or four years because people said, “Times are tough, so we shouldn’t be spending money on that.” But there are finally a bunch of groups now that have been around for some time and are seeing some success.

So then the question becomes, if you’ve won the right to exist and you’ve shown some value, how do you create more value? The reality is, a number of the things that are working don’t scale linearly. Just because I have 15 people focused on driving innovation doesn’t mean I could have 150 people doing that successfully all on the same team. When you go from 15 people to 150, you have to add bureaucracy, you have to add reporting structures, and you have to add complexity.

KI: It’s interesting that so many innovation groups have, as you put it, “died early deaths” before they’ve achieved anything worthy of scaling. What goes wrong?

Wolcott: I can think of two archetypal scenarios. One is that the CEO gets the innovation religion and decides to set up a big group. The company allocates a hundred million dollars, it brings in a chief innovation officer, and it has a big parade. It says, “We’re going to start innovating!” and that team runs off to do its thing.

But unfortunately, in many cases, people try to do too many things. “We’re going to come up with new ways to help our existing business units compete,” they say. Then they’ll say, “We’re going to come up with brand new businesses.” And then they’ll say, “We’re going to change the culture of innovation for this entire company.” These are all important objectives—but they’re all completely different. So instead of developing a deep expertise, they scatter their resources around, and end up doing nothing very well.

KI: What’s the other scenario?

Wolcott: When you are a new entity within an organization, you’ve got to prove yourself.  And proving yourself means having some quantified business value that people can point to. That’s true for innovation groups too, even if they want to believe that their contributions won’t hit the market for four or five years.

KI: And that therefore they shouldn’t be accountable to anybody?

Wolcott: Right—and they have a point, especially if they’re supposed to be creating the future of the company. Maybe they won’t hit that objective for four or five years. But the problem is, you won’t last that long unless you have an organizational engagement strategy, and that includes creating some quantifiable value. I tell new innovation leaders they’ve got eighteen months to get wins on the board.

KI: Why only eighteen months?

Wolcott:  The reason is the budget cycle. The first three or four months are a honeymoon period. Then people can still say, “Well, they haven’t really even been around a year yet.” But once you pass that year threshold, everybody’s circling and wondering what’s going on. And then by the time you get to eighteen months, you’re in next year’s budget cycle, and the chief financial officer is asking, “Why exactly are we doing this?” You have a target on your back, and you’d better be ready with proof points.

KI: What can a new team tasked with innovating truly accomplish in such a short amount of time?

Wolcott: You have to figure out what interim objectives will validate your existence. Let me answer this in a different way.  I advocate strongly that people trying to do new things need to have an organizational engagement plan. I actually refer to this as the “human plan.”

Get a big table, put a big piece of paper on it, and write down all the key people across the company. Then, write down what you think they thinkabout what you’re doing. Select the people whom you need to be engaging with in the near term, and then allocate them to your team members. Say “You’ve known Bill for a long time. Go have lunch with him.” Make this part of your development plan, because work expands to fill any available space—it’s like a gas. You’ll always have more work than you have time for, and these organizational engagement steps will get pushed aside, because they’re usually not urgent. But the last thing you want to do is go to someone only when you need them; you need to build bridges before you need them.

KI: So the goal is for everyone to have a positive feeling about what your group is doing?

Wolcott: There will never be a case where everybody across the company loves you, so that’s not the right objective. What you do in that first year or two years is you find the executives who really want you there and go all in with them. You have limited resources. You need to focus those resources, and the last thing you want to do is waste your time trying to win people who don’t want you there. Then, if you start to succeed with them on specific projects, they start to tell your story.

"There will never be a case where everybody across the company loves you, so that’s not the right objective," says Wolcott.

KI: So these people become your evangelists of sorts—internal evangelists. In your article you mention external evangelists as well. How do you find these people—or do they find you?
 
Wolcott: Usually at the beginning you have to find them, because they don’t even know you exist. But this is a marketing challenge: think about your initiative as a business in itself. You have customers, you have products and services, you have output. You even have a brand. So who are your target partners? And then go out and find ways to engage with them.

One way could be to host small, intimate working sessions on topics that are of critical interest to you and your company—and also of critical interest to others who are in positions of influence.

KI: And is this where opportunities like KIN Global come in? 

Wolcott: Yeah.  Obviously I’m biased because I started KIN with some of the faculty members here at Kellogg. We saw the power of these communities—TED, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Skoll World Forum, Davos, etc.— where people come together on a somewhat regular basis and build an affinity.

We’re building a space that is relevant for Kellogg and for our alumni and students, and for the global business community. It gives its participants an efficient, compelling and I hope rewarding way to build a very diverse network that you wouldn’t naturally build by going to your industry conference. That’s critical because often within an industry you go to the same conferences as your competitors, you talk to the same people, and you even hire the same people. If you always look in the same places, you’re liable to find the same answers.

KI: Other than a diversity of experiences and perspectives, is there anything innovators should look for when starting, or joining, an organization like this?

Wolcott: Our core KIN-ians are the ones who come back and develop truly trusting relationships. If I come to you with an idea and you’ve never met me before and my idea is a little bit crazy, you’ll just think I’m crazy. But if we’ve worked together for ten years, you’ll listen to my crazy idea. We’re building trust and community. The challenge I would pose to your readers is what does their personal community look like?

Editor’s Note: To learn more about KIN and KIN Global, visit www.kinglobal.org or email Professor Wolcott at r-wolcott@northwestern.edu.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg.