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February 2018 | By: By Andrew C. Corbett, Paul T. Babson Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and Chair of the Entrepreneurship Division

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Key Takeaways


  1. In large firms, innovation requires discipline, organization, hierarchy, and broad institutional support in the form of organizational design and clearly dedicated role, responsibilities, and career tracks.
  2. Effective innovation requires more than just a single champion, R&D group, or skunkworks.
  3. Three fundamental competencies are necessary for corporate innovation: discovery, incubation, and acceleration. These skills must be mapped onto roles and tied to growth plans for corporate innovation to thrive.


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“There are plenty of innovation jobs; but no innovation careers.”

That’s what I said to my colleagues as we were about halfway through the latest phase of our research project investigating how large mature firms create strategic, breakthrough innovation.

We’d been examining innovation for almost two decades and were about three years into the latest phase of our research when we arrived at a conclusion. If mature firms and growth firms really want to sustain innovation over time, they need to focus on its linkage to the creation of true innovation careers … not just one-off jobs.

Innovation is an imperative in today’s environment and companies often struggle when it comes to the uncertain process of breakthrough innovation. Creativity, lateral thinking, and similar actions help drive innovation, but the freedom required for such activities can often obscure the fact that innovation—especially in large firms—requires discipline and organization. Obviously not bureaucracy, but a hierarchy. To compete requires organizations to institutionalize innovation through people.

In our latest book from Stanford University Press, Beyond the Champion, my co-authors and I argue that innovation is a talent all its own that requires distinct skills and expertise, just like finance or marketing.Book Cover Viewing innovation as a discipline in its own right, it is easy to see that breakthrough wins require an organizational design with clearly delineated roles, responsibilities, and career tracks for those who shoulder the responsibility for new products, new services, and entire new businesses. Drawing upon the results of a four-year study and two decades of related research (with such companies as 3M, Analog Devices, DuPont, IBM, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble, Royal Dutch Shell, and many more) our research outlines three fundamental competencies necessary for innovation: discovery, incubation, and acceleration. Mapping these skills onto roles and opportunities for advancement, we deliver a pioneering blueprint for sustainable innovation.

Relying on a single champion, maverick or former startup entrepreneur that you bring into your existing organization just does not work. They are part of the solution but not the complete solution if you want to innovate repeatedly. You need an organizational discipline that calls for different types of individuals and allows them to thrive and grow as innovation professionals. Organizations need breakthrough innovations that can move the revenue and profit needles in substantial ways. Spinning out new business teams will not create the impact needed on the top or bottom line. Solutions of this size require leaders to identify different possible innovation options within a portfolio that connect directly to different opportunity platforms and projects.

For decades, companies have been attempting to deliver innovation by relying upon different process approaches, structural approaches, financial incentive approaches, and cultural approaches. All play a part, but driving innovation in today’s competitive marketplaces requires a firmament. It requires a true innovation department. Our book describes how to build an innovation department by selecting the right people for the right roles, and measuring their performance in the right ways. We also explore career paths for innovation experts so that they can remain engaged and valuable within a company, and not atrophy or disengage.

Leaders and managers need to create true innovation departments, not just R&D groups, skunkworks, or an on-demand mix of engineers, technologists, and marketers. Innovation-reliant organizations will find continual success only when they institutionalize innovation through their people.

Learn how to apply these concepts to your company at the Babson Executive Education 2-day program Building a Capability for Breakthrough Innovation: Executive Overview taking place June 9-10, 2020.