Leading with innovation: staying successful in an age of volatility

Chris Cowart, Managing Director of NSIC, holds a session on innovation strategy for member companies.

Chris Cowart, managing director of the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center, explains why creating an innovation strategy is the key to navigating uncertain times.

Chris Cowart oversees the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center (NSIC), located at SRI’s Menlo Park, Calif., campus. Launched in July 2021, NSIC serves as a home for member companies to refine existing corporate innovation activities and develop new innovation initiatives. As managing director of NSIC, Cowart is responsible for its operations, program content, and partnerships, and for working with its member companies. Here, Cowart offers valuable guidance for companies to effectively navigate innovation strategy, maintain agility, and plan for the future:

Corporate leaders today face unprecedented challenges — particularly large companies, which have to worry about startups that can challenge their established businesses.

But this challenge also creates a genuine opportunity: It spurs large corporations to develop a robust process for encouraging and facilitating innovation that can appropriately identify and harness the potential of disruptive innovations without fear of being surpassed by a startup.

While this innovation process may be simple, it is difficult to execute well. It’s rare for a dominant player — including Japanese companies in traditional markets, where we do the bulk of our work — to recognize or prioritize disruptive innovation, thereby justifying the nimble action required to continue to thrive.

However, with the right approach, large established companies can become agile, future-focused organizations that can consistently outcompete and lead the disruptions.

Shift to a disruptive mindset

The first shift required for companies to win the disruption game — and keep successful long-term — is to adjust their mindset. Organizations must first prioritize innovation as a core element of an overall strategy. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money or time on innovation. Rather, it means that innovation is treated as a strategic imperative that touches every element of the business.

One simple way companies can begin to shift the internal mindset is by holding regular “innovation salons,” in which external experts are invited to give keynotes or run workshops on topics of technology or innovation.

Importantly, the salons would be made available to all employees (and sometimes partners) to catalyze conversations about innovation across the organization. “Hackathons” and internal project competitions are additional ways to support and showcase small, risky experiments that may lead to big breakthroughs.

Innovation can happen anywhere

Importantly, innovation is not owned by one department or individual. It must be valued across a broad ecosystem of employees, partners, customers, suppliers, investors, board members, industry experts, and learning providers.

Innovation is often just looking at the same problem with a new perspective, so allowing and even encouraging interactions and collaboration across traditional silos is one of the fastest ways to spark creative thinking and new innovations.

Most important, innovation leaders who are looking to be the disruptors must surround themselves with a diverse network of people and companies that think differently and do not accept the status quo.

Managing innovation requires discipline and structure

A shift in strategy requires a disciplined, long-term process and a commitment to affect the company’s culture over time, typically in three stages: assess, build, and activate.

Assessing the state of an organization’s innovation culture is the first step to becoming an innovation leader. Once they understand how they are operating, it’s then possible to build a strategy for experimenting and then activate and manage a portfolio of innovation projects, from incremental to disruptive in impact.

Regardless of the industry, companies that make the commitment to take a disciplined and holistic approach to innovation will likely be ahead of the curve and can take advantage of potential disruptions when — or even before — they happen. While corporate innovation is a critical process for growth, it’s challenging to do well in large organizations, especially for disruptions that fundamentally differ from what the company is currently pursuing.

Find and support intrapreneurs

One of the biggest challenges for many companies is identifying and supporting the innovation change-makers — the intrapreneurs.

Intrapreneurs are employees who are tasked with creating new and innovative products within an established business, or, in simpler terms, an in-house entrepreneur.

To lead a successful disruptive innovation project or campaign within a large company, the intrapreneur typically requires different incentives and support than is typically found elsewhere within the company.

Companies must find a healthy balance of keeping the intrapreneurs and their disruptive innovation projects independent so that they don’t get set back by corporate culture but integrated enough that they can be supported and ultimately make a difference within the company.

Interested in creating an effective innovation process?

At the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center (NSIC), we believe innovation is the key to a company’s success in this time of ongoing volatility, uncertainty, and increasing complexity. Since 2021, NSIC has been an open innovation center with the mission to accelerate innovations through Japanese corporations. NSIC connects its Japanese member companies to SRI research labs and the Silicon Valley ecosystem and provides coaching and unique exposure to new technologies, innovators, and business models for understanding and developing new innovations.

Learn more about the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center at www.sri.com/the-nomura-sri-innovation-center.

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