By definition, breakthrough innovation is the introduction of new ideas that drive a different way of doing things. This requires risk taking, of course, since no one can foresee the outcome or results of such initiatives. Breakthrough innovators are willing to make decisions and choices as much on the basis of intuition and insight as on data and forecasts—they bet on people rather than manage a process.
In our experience, a dedicated environment is required to promote this kind of approach. And indeed, across all companies and industries, there is a growing trend toward a centralized approach to innovation and product development—meaning that these functions and processes are either controlled and driven by a centralized organization, or a centralized organization conducts R&D and passes the framework for new products and services to business units or regional units for development and launch. This trend is even more pronounced among strong innovators, with those pursuing a centralized approach rising from 68 percent in 2013 to 71 percent in 2014. Similarly, about 70 percent of disruptive innovators also lean toward a more centralized approach. Two-thirds of all breakthrough innovators stated that all innovation and product development is controlled and driven by a centralized organization, at least in its initial stages. More than 70 percent have a different organizational entity for managing radical innovation.
Some breakthrough innovators manage to use the entire company as a new-idea laboratory. Apple under the late Steve Jobs is perhaps the best-known example. Google’s policy of encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on their own ideas is another. The 3M Company sets the goal of earning 30 percent of its revenues from products introduced in the past five years, and the company aligns its culture and incentives accordingly. It has long allowed its employees to spend up to 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. But such companies are for more the exception than the rule.
A more likely approach for most is establishing a dedicated innovation entity. One major energy company has a division with 10,000 employees who are focused on technology and R&D and report directly to the CEO. Like others, this company understands that it is critical for such entities to have the full support of top management and sufficient backing in terms of both financial resources and the time required to get major innovations off the ground. Decentralized organizations tend to dilute the risk-taking authority, allocating smaller budgets and not providing the risk takers with top management backing or the time they need to succeed. As Barry Calpino, vice president of breakthrough innovation at Kraft Foods, recently told Knowledge@Wharton, “…the number one consistent cause of failure is not investing in a good idea beyond just the launch period. You have to stay with it. The ones I’ve been part of that have been big wins have been [instances] where we’ve stuck with it, we’ve invested behind it, and we’ve realized that to get something new to stick, it doesn’t just happen quickly—you have to have staying power.”
Another approach enjoying increasingly wide trial is the corporate incubator. Incubators more or less evaporated when the dot-com bubble burst, but BCG research indicates that they are making a comeback—with a twist. The new generation of incubators is focused on incubating ideas that can have a direct impact on the sponsoring company’s business, not just creating stand-alone companies. The start-ups selected for incubation have interactions with their corporate sponsor that go beyond simple cash support, including access to R&D, supply chains, and important customers at both the corporate and the business unit levels.
Our analysis of the top 30 companies (as measured by market value) in each of the six innovation-intensive industries (telecommunications, technology, media and publishing, consumer goods, automotive, and chemicals) found that 19 of the 180 companies had established incubators—or their close relatives, accelerators—in 2013 alone. In all six industries, 43 percent of the top ten companies (as measured by market value) have established incubators or accelerators, compared with 23 percent of the top 30. (See Incubators, Accelerators, Venturing, and More, BCG Focus, June 2014.)
Breakthrough innovation programs are the result of organizational prioritization and planning. They are rooted in corporate cultures that value innovation and the individual attributes that help further new-product and service development. The best innovators understand that both these factors are prerequisites for breaking through.
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