Innovation Incubators and Accelerators: What Happens When They Go Wrong?

I recently wrote an article that outlined a new approach to developing and supporting successful innovation incubators and accelerators within corporate organizations. The article appeared to have touched a nerve as I had a number of people reach out to me to offer their experiences with incubators/accelerators. While I received a range of opinions, I was actually most interested in the stories of failure.

As a reminder, consistent with my last article, while incubators are often first stage efforts and accelerators are often second stage, they are similar concepts and will be handled together within this article. In my role as CEO of Culturevate I attend and speak at a range of conferences where you only ever hear the glossy, “everything is fine” story (often through clenched teeth). However, anyone who has been involved with these efforts knows how hard they can be to launch, maintain and especially generate business value from. So in short, I thought there would be more interest in some stories of failure.

The Energy guy

I recently chatted with an employee of a large energy company, who had won an internal innovation campaign and was invited to turn his idea into reality. Around the same time, a number of his colleagues were also invited to work on their own ideas. They were welcomed into a brightly lit workspace, separated from the rest of the organization, where they were scheduled to spend the next 9-months developing their ideas. One of the first challenges they faced was that while the disconnection from Business Units (BU) was liberating in opening up their thinking, the flip side to that was the newly created perception of “us / them”. It was interesting to note that this perception appeared to be reinforced on both sides. From the incubator participants, it became a reason to blame the BU when thinking was not immediately accepted. From the BU’s, it became an opportunity to question or push back on their responsibility in supporting the development of these ideas. The end result was that the incubator participants struggled to generate support for their ideas, which were essential for them to ensure commercial success.

The expected hotbed of collaboration, beanbags and KRAZY new thinking actually turned into a depressing, isolated environment.

My contact also pointed out that mood within the incubator soured when the idea owners were collectively facing challenges in executing their ideas. The expected hotbed of collaboration, beanbags and KRAZY new thinking actually turned into a depressing, isolated environment. It got to the point where incubator members would actively avoid visiting the space, and often spent their time back at their old work spaced within the BU’s.

The Banking guy

I also talked with an incubator manager at a large bank. In this situation, the organization had been running an incubator for sometime, filled with winners from a series of internal innovation campaigns. Unfortunately, the campaign had been structured so that disruptive ideas were heavily favored in the final selection process. The result was that for 3-years in a row, new disruptive ideas would come into the incubator with an expectation for delivery. The result was that over 3-years no ideas were implemented, which put pressure on the incubators leadership to show results. There were some changes made to the scope and format of ideas, but at that time it was considered too little, too late.  As a consequence, on the 4th year the incubator was quietly shut down by corporate and innovation leadership.

The Pharma Lady

A friend of mine leads a corporate-level innovation program at a global pharmaceutical organization. An incubator was set up about 2-years ago, with a goal of supporting the development of cross-BU ideas, sourced from the various operating businesses. In any organization corporate leadership churns on a regular basis, but it’s fair to say that innovation leaders often face even more churn than the traditional C-suite. This can be due (in part) to both the newness of the competency and the reliance for support from more established organizations to achieve success (Luis Solis wrote about this in his excellent book “Innovation Alchemists”).

In this case, my friend was frustrated with the corporate role and so decided to move into a role more aligned with an operating unit. This posed some serious challenges for the incubator, which by design had been created at a corporate level. For now, an interim leader of that incubator has been appointed, but the longer term success of the idea and those working on them hangs in the balance.

In my writings I often look to provide positive stories, and also to provide my thoughts on how any challenges can be addressed. In my earlier article, I had provided what I felt was an outline of an approach to improve some, if not all of, the challenges raised in the above examples. As always, thanks for reading this article, and please do feel free to provide me any of your thoughts about your experience with incubators or accelerators in corporate organizations.

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author


Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led the BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

Photo: Incubating & nurturing ideas from Shutterstock.com

  • http://www.creatingthunder.com Katrin Windsor

    Wow, great topic. Thanks for sharing. As a professional coach I have several FAILED ENTREPRENEURS as clients – helping them pick themselves up again – and focus on what’s next.

    Being their confidential coach gives me deep insights into their psyche, their “grief” and what’s going on when everything hits the wall – and the emotional aftermath. And I can tell you… it’s HARD. They’re going through a painful process that’s akin to grief. It’s like their baby died, and along with it, their money, their identity, sense of self (if I’m not that hot CEO then who AM I??), and often their relationships.

    For example, one of my clients was one of the rising stars in our local economy. He and his company (a tech firm in a hot space) were highly visible media darlings, he was considered hot and successful – everyone courted him, and he created lots of jobs.

    He poured almost all of the money he made from a previous exit in Silicon Valley into this one – confident that this new venture will work out just like his previous one. His staff grew. A “light” work load was 70 hours a week. He rarely saw his wife and kids.

    4 years into it, markets changed, and he suddenly saw “a train in the distance” heading straight at him – and what could be a potential train wreck. For 2 years he and his team increased their workload trying to avoid the wreck – but OUCH. Total wreck. He is struggling with so many issues, shame, sadness, anger, grief… I know him and I have no doubt he will re-invent himself – I can see it clearly for him and hold that vision for him …. he can’t see it yet himself … it’s a process for sure. As someone who has been in their shoes … and now a coach … I sure have a lot of compassion for them.

    If you know someone who failed a business … please reach out to them… invite them over for dinner or out for a hike or drinks. They ALL tend to go into isolation for awhile and it’s nice when a friend reaches out. Better yet, make an extra effort to introduce them / connect them with new potential opportunities.

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