Expert Advice for Medium and Midsize Businesses

10 Ways to Break Down Innovation Barriers

Reggie Bradford
SVP, Startup Ecosystem & Accelerator

I love blocks—and so do my friends over at LEGO. Blocks can be put together and taken apart to build anything you can imagine. Put enough of them together, and you can build a wall. Take the wall apart, and you’ve removed a barrier—you can use the same blocks to build something completely new.

If your SMB has run up against a wall when it comes to innovation, you could learn a lot from LEGO.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to share the stage at Startup Grind Europe with my colleague and friend Lars Silberbauer, senior global director of social media and digital at LEGO. We talked about “Breaking Through Blocks in Innovation”—how startups and enterprises can work together to co-create and co-develop.

Image credit: Startup Grind, Startup Grind Europe Conference

Many startups look up to large, successful enterprises and want to be just like them. The irony is that, in today’s ever-changing digital world, there is no success without agility and innovation—thus, many large enterprises are looking to small, innovative startups wanting to be more like them.

Finding ground where enterprises and SMBs can help each other is critical. Together they can solve problems, drive change and digital disruption, and add value.

This isn’t easy stuff. Trust me, I’ve sat on both sides as a three-time entrepreneur and corporate executive. I know first-hand the cultural and organizational differences that often stifle these relationships. But it’s crucial for the success of both startups and corporates.

Here are 10 steps that both startups and enterprises can take to innovate and grow together.

Advice for Startups

1. Do Your Homework

Research the companies you want to approach. Know their business, marketplace, competitors, and especially the people inside. The biggest turnoff is when startups cold call without researching and thinking through how best to approach, make it personal, and make an impactful impression. Don’t spray and pray; narrow your list to corporates you really know and can really deliver value.

2. Know Your Value

Be clear on what problem you can solve or make better and how that will add value. Solve a specific problem and be 10X better at it. Be able to clarify this in less than one minute. This ties directly to doing your homework. If you don’t know the company well, you can’t understand how to add value.

3. Build Relationships

Relationships are everything. Period. Work hard and devote time to building them. At Vitrue, relationships were paramount and a driving company mission. We always approached with a clear vision of how we can add value. How we can co-innovate and co-develop together where we all benefit. Those relationships paid off for Vitrue: We were one of Facebook’s first developer partners; and strong relations with Apple, P&G and McDonald’s created a relationship of co-development that drove our roadmap and created value for all. The future of startups and enterprise innovation is all about relationships and establishing meaningful connections.

4. Come Recommended

Having someone vouch for your startup is key. Cold calling is certainly the hard way to get noticed. Network, find connections, help people, focus on thought leadership, and drive awareness. A recommendation from a peer or colleague goes a long way. So too does awareness. At my startups, we put a focus on thought leadership, speaking and PR. And it drove countless connections and new business.

5. Be Open to Pivoting 

Remember that corporations—the innovative ones—will be highly experimental. Meaning you should be open to experimenting, too. I’m not saying take the focus of your goals; just be open to change and iteration. What you originally thought was your value when the relationship started can change and develop over time. Be open to experimentation and the potential pivot.

Advice for Enterprises

6. Get Executive Buy-in

Obvious but true. If your CEO isn’t on board fully backing innovation, it won’t happen. Present a strategic plan with goals and objectives, but make it clear that it’ll get messy and you’ll make mistakes. Only with C-suite support can an innovation agenda succeed.

7. Identify Change Agents

You need many change agents to disrupt and implement real change. Identify, elevate, and let them help you see around the corners. For LEGO, engaging startups is a big part of the change agent mentality. In fact, it’s why Lars reached out to my startup Vitrue back in 2010. LEGO works with startups for both technological and cultural reasons. The startups become change agents inside LEGO. It’s a mutual learning process that helps the innovation agenda at LEGO.

8. Design for Disruption

You have to design your organization for disruption so your team can be agile, responsive and constantly learning. Think of digital disruption as almost a parallel business running at the same time, so the core business doesn’t stop but neither does innovation. At LEGO, they don’t want to change their core product. Those little plastic blocks continue to inspire creativity in people across the globe. They don’t want to change the product they love; but they can change how they market it, develop the brand, and position the company for the future.

9. Rethink Corporate Structures

Some innovation-killing structures have to go; you’ll know them when you see them…or after you’ve beaten your head against the wall one too many times. It’s hard to innovate if you’re constrained by legacy. But some structures aren’t going anywhere. They are key to the business. Take legal for example. LEGO doesn’t view it as a constraint but as a benefit. If Lars knows legal restrictions and issues better, and knows how best to work within those, then he has an advantage over competitors. Don’t think of everything as a barrier; rethink how you work within structures to be more agile and smart.

10. Be Highly Experimental

The startup saying of “fail fast and break things” must apply within the enterprise. Of course public companies can’t quite take the risks of a startup, but they absolutely should create a cultural that is highly experimental. It’s the only way you’ll learn. Remember: You don’t know what you don’t know. Testing and learning is the path to innovation.

With these 10 steps, young SMBs and more established corporate players can learn from each other, break down barriers to innovation, and build toward mutual success.

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