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Why do enterprises struggle with pursuing new opportunities when they are successful in their core business?

Beyond the Rhetoric

Harry Alford | 1/19/2021, 1:34 p.m.
Part of the answer lies in the power of network structures...
Harry Alford is Co-Founder of humble ventures, a venture development firm accelerating tech startups in partnership with large organizations and investors. Harry Alford

“Part of the answer lies in the power of network structures and the ability of organizations to create what we have termed adaptive space,” says the co-authors of MIT Sloan Management Review's article “How to Catalyze Innovation in Your Organization.” Adaptive space is the network and organizational context that allows team members, ideas, information, and resources to flow across the organization to foster innovation.

Adaptive space “works by enabling ideas generated in entrepreneurial pockets of an organization to flow into the operational system and develop into new products or services that lead to growth.”

Innovation is no longer a side project; it now must be managed as part of the core business. Adaptive space doesn’t have to be a physical space like an incubator. It can be an internal pitch competition or a hackathon. Accommodating the COVID remote world teams live and work today is vital to bridging the idea flow between in-person and virtual. This can be done in several ways. For example, we partnered with Wallenius Wilhelmsen's innovation team to crowdsource innovation through an open innovation challenge.

An open innovation challenge is a cost-effective way to receive breakthrough solutions and can be used as a platform to complement the organizations’ internal R&D while extending its reach to new ways of thinking with external partners. An innovation challenge can be deployed in stages to take input from a community of internal and external stakeholders and solicit partnership across a wide variety of partners who contribute financial support, subject matter expertise, or marketing reach via their network. Challenges can also be used to find collaborators or recruit highly skilled and motivated individuals who have proven to be capable of joining your organization.

The Challenge: The brown marmorated stink bug was accidentally introduced to much of the world through its native Japan, Korea, and China. These stink bugs and other invasive species have negatively impacted global agriculture, supply chain, and shipping with no universal solution in sight. Invasive species in the United States alone cost more than $120 billion in damages each year. Due to these species' rapid growth rate and their economic impact, shipping & logistics company Wallenius Wilhelmsen wanted help to develop solutions to curtail their growth.

Our Approach: We developed an innovation challenge seeking input to identify and treat stink bugs and other invasive species. The challenge called on innovators from various fields such as academia, startups, venture capital, shipping, logistics & transportation, local & national governments, large enterprise organizations, agriculture, biology, and entomology to contribute their subject matter expertise to the challenge design.

It’s important to break down silos across the organization to collaborate effectively, including decision-makers and lower-level employees with connections between the silos. Adaptive space allows for these networked interactions. Traditional bureaucratic structures limit the innovation potential. The MIT article describes three network roles key to connecting these divided channels:

Brokers: Ideation and builder of bridges between groups and employees.

Central Connectors: Drive development and implementation.

Energizers: Catalyst of ideas.

Successful innovation results from humble leadership, feedback, intrapreneurship, collaboration, prototyping, and “when people share values and understand why the work is important.” Adaptive space is one way for established enterprises to pursue new opportunities and successfully innovate beyond their core business.

Harry Alford is co-founder of Humble Ventures, a venture development firm accelerating tech startups in partnership with large organizations and investors.

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