When large companies open innovation outposts at the Communitech Hub in Waterloo Region, Ontario, we insist that they choose people from outside their organizations to lead them.

Why would we tell our partners to avoid selecting these leaders – or activators, as we call them – from within their companies? It’s simple, really: If they really want to change the conversation about innovation, they need new perspectives; fresh sets of eyes on the problems and opportunities these companies face.

In our case, that means activators usually come from within the Communitech ecosystem. They might be from a startup, a fast-growing ‘scale-up,’ or one of the many large technology companies in the area. As a result, they are community-minded and bring the perspective of a builder, a leader, and a company-focused “intrapreneur” or entrepreneurial employee.

Their job is complicated, as it has to straddle both the scrappy startup mentality that this region is famous for, and the need for structure and process that large organizations demand. Interestingly, we’ve found that these seemingly contradictory roles can co-exist, but a few things need to happen before the outposts – or labs, as some of our partners call them – can make meaningful progress.

For starters, the big company, or “mothership,” needs to get comfortable with letting go, and understand that unexpected, unplanned and unwelcome things will happen. Some will be surprises with great potential while others will be iterative.

But whether the outpost is building software, re-engineering processes or rebuilding job descriptions, it’s the activator’s job to inject speed, agility and uncertainty into the company to help prepare it for the future. The company can therefore expect to be challenged to add new tools, deliver software differently, and most importantly, focus on the customer.

The activator, meanwhile, needs to become the subject matter expert on everything that will make the mothership uncomfortable.

Everyone working in the outpost needs to understand and practise agile philosophies and methods. They need to use tools such as the Business Model Canvas or Lean Model Canvas to understand all the factors behind a product launch, all while focusing on experimentation and learning.

They also need to develop common language so that they can communicate the value of these tools to the mothership. Without these communication tools, the outpost will be less able to influence the large organization.

Finally, the outpost and the mothership need to have alignment. We’ll take a closer look at this when we explore the concept of the innovation council in a future post, but if the outpost’s work doesn’t line up with the goals of the larger organization, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move any of its prototypes into production.

All of this means that the mothership needs to support the outpost by providing problems and opportunities, while the outpost in turn provides the mothership with new tools, culture and talent to achieve results that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

The bottom line is that big companies need to learn how to innovate, and getting started on innovation outposts – with outsiders to lead them – puts them on the path to drive meaningful change on board the mothership.

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.

Photo: While you’re back there can you scratch there!! by Chad Sparkes is licensed under CC BY 2.0.