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When it comes to innovation, size doesn’t matter

How large companies can launch big ideas just as efficiently—and often better—than startups

When it comes to innovation, size doesn’t matter
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It used to be that scrappy startups had the inside edge when it came to innovation. After all, how could a giant firm be agile enough to pivot on a disruptive dime? These days, however, it’s clear that for even the biggest companies, size isn’t a limiting factor when it comes to innovation. In fact, the relatively massive amount of creativity at a larger company’s disposal can provide a sharp competitive advantage in the race toward new ideas.

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At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by Capital One brought together senior leaders at some of the country’s largest organizations to talk about the variable pace of innovation, the importance of diverse perspectives, and learning from “failing hard and failing fast.” Here are four key takeaways from the event:

1. Understand where speed matters

The route from idea to end product doesn’t take place at a steady rate. The initial, creative phase of innovation requires the most nimble teamwork because the goal is to choose the best path out of a practically unlimited territory. Jennifer Lopez, vice president of product development and head of the Labs at Capital One, talked about the speed of learning—how her team finds out as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to guide their decision-making. “You’re coming up with all the options; you are open,” she said. “Everything is available to you. Everyone is going to help you imagine a different state.”

Eventually, that flurry of creativity must give way to a disciplined innovation process. Microsoft made a conscious effort to embrace hackathons in a bid to be less risk averse. “We wanted people to have the ability to try anything,” said Mike Pell, director at the Microsoft Garage, the tech giant’s home for experimental projects. But that was only the first step of the process. “A hack project is not ready to ship, but it gets to a point where we can run an experiment to see what we have and whether that could potentially be a new feature, product, or service,” said Pell, who also holds the title of “Envisioneer” at the Garage. “That’s how we went from that Wild West, anything-is-possible [mindset] to being more methodical about finding those things that should be moving forward.”

2. Don’t fear—or ignore—failure

Learning and resilience is a key part of an innovative culture. Lopez believes that shutting down ideas that don’t work is an organic—and important—part of the innovation process. “In our lab, we look at hundreds of ideas annually and then shut down 95% to 97% of them,” she said. “We’re letting go of those things that don’t work to find that which matters.”

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Fear of failure shouldn’t keep teams from trying new things, and David Echegoyén, general manager, membership at Walmart, prefers combining intelligent risks with a learning agenda. “That means we’ve really looked at why it could work and why it might not,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it’s going to teach us these things so that we can take another intelligent risk.”

3. Listen to everyone

Big companies naturally have more talent and knowledge to draw upon than small companies. But when it comes to innovation, companies can benefit from looking beyond traditional creative hot spots such as R&D labs or tech teams. People without any experience designing products or services often turn out to be the most valuable contributors at Microsoft Garage because of their different perspectives. “Hacking is for everyone,” he said. “It’s not just for developers. Good ideas can come from anywhere.”

Hearing all of those voices requires clear lines of communication and a broadly understood mandate that somebody will listen if you have an idea. Echegoyén described how Walmart built an internal communication network with peer-to-peer ideation in mind. “If you have an idea related to any function, you can get to the right person,” he said. “In an email or two, you would be talking to the right individual, regardless of whether you’re in a store in Kentucky or in a development center.”

4. Stay laser-focused on customer needs

As fun as it is to think big, ideas that don’t meet customer needs must be adjusted or killed before teams waste too much time on them. Moving an idea forward requires taking a hard look at whether the project meets its objectives. Pell suggested an analytical solution to help team members whose adoration for their projects may be obscuring potential pitfalls and causing them to rely on unproven assumptions: real-world feedback. “We created an experimental outlet in the Microsoft Garage to get these projects in people’s hands early,” he said. “We let our customers help figure out what’s going to work, what matters, and what doesn’t.”

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Lopez described how Capital One has created proactive and personalized experiences for customers, especially across digital tools such as its intelligent assistant, Eno, and mobile app. “We took the customer connection and brought it to every single person in the company, whether they are engineers, designers, or front-line associates at a branch or cafe,” she said.

Maintaining that connection to the consumer is ultimately the key to speed and efficiency throughout the process. “What’s made us move the fastest is, honestly, customer-centricity,” Echegoyén said. “It’s created a tremendous acceleration for us to say, ‘I know this traditionally would have taken nine months, but the customer really needs it now. How do we get it in three weeks?'”

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