Companies that approach innovation by sending out press releases and hiring innovation experts are often accused of “innovation theatre” – in other words, of working really hard to appear innovative, but not actually making the internal changes necessary for innovation to occur.

The innovation outposts at the Communitech Hub could be mistaken for innovation theatre if that’s all that was happening. But the large enterprise companies that have docked with us know that setting up a lab is the easy part.

To get beyond theatre and build a meaningful and sustainable innovation model, a company must do two things: Create an innovation council with clear and proper terms of reference, and build a repeatable innovation process that allows for regular contact between the outpost and the mothership. These two pieces allow the ‘actors’ in the outpost to be as creative as possible, while knowing their stage and infrastructure are supported.

A properly prepared and engaged innovation council is the linchpin of corporate innovation. Its members are the guardians of the innovation process and align all innovation activities, including those from the outpost, with the company’s best interests. The innovation council is ultimately responsible for four parts of the innovation strategy: team, process, translation and alignment.

Team: Supports the innovation outpost (and other innovation initiatives) by providing problems to solve, along with the resources and the innovation team needs to experiment. They are the what and the why, not the how.

Process: The innovation process will vary from company to company, but there are some universal aspects. Each process must, for example, document the major innovation milestones to be met, how decisions are made and when funding is given. These tend to be product focused, but the same principles can be applied to process improvements.

Translation: The innovation council will understand the value of the new methodologies that the outpost team is perfecting, but must be able to communicate them back into the mothership. This ability to translate the work of the outpost promotes the spread of innovation culture beyond the innovation team and into the rest of the company.

Alignment: It is not the innovation outpost’s job to understand how its projects align with the mothership. It is, rather, the innovation council’s job to guide and support the outpost to achieve outcomes that support the company’s key strategic pillars. The chair of the innovation council should report directly to the CEO and/or board on the alignment of initiatives to show their value through new products, processes and lessons learned.

A repeatable process is how innovation in large companies becomes purposeful. Because there is transparency, accountability and ownership built into the process, it has a chance to succeed.  Innovation often fails because no one wants to own an uncertain outcome. In this methodology, the senior leaders who sit on the innovation council own the outcomes and thus prevent a situation where any single person owns failures.

Finally, the innovation process keeps the innovation agenda prominent on the radar of the company’s senior leadership. If the innovation council must report to the CEO or at each board meeting, its profile stays high and ensures difficult questions about value, viability and long-term success are answered.

Without this support and structure within the mothership, an outpost is left on its own – like actors on a stage with no help from behind the curtain. Without the outpost, the mothership has no actors to push the creative process and craft a meaningful innovation story. Together, and with the right governance, transparency and ownership, innovation becomes something much more: a powerful tool not only to tell great stories, but to drive an innovative culture and move the needle on company performance.

The Nimble Hippo looks at how large organizations can build innovative cultures and disruptive strategies by taking the best lessons from startup ecosystems and applying them in a big-company context.