Ideating is just the start. Can you identify and overcome the internal obstacles in the complex, winding path to market?

Organizations are taking different paths to their innovation goals. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Eddie Yoon and Steve Hughes advise large companies and start-ups to partner as one method of circumventing this familiar roadblock:

Startups are better at detecting and unlocking emerging and latent demand. But they often stumble at scaling their proof of concept, not only because they’re often doing it for the first time, but also because the skills necessary for creating are not the same as scaling. … In contrast, big companies often end up launching things they can make, not what people want. Successful established companies are focused on increasing scale and are often better at scaling proof of concepts than creating new products from scratch.

This makes sense for those organizations that can afford the entry fee. (The authors cite the example of the Campbell Soup Company investing $125 million in a venture fund to support food-related start-ups.) But those companies and much smaller ones improve their odds of innovating successfully by getting past the notion that start-ups can solve everything and evaluate how they are holding themselves back.

The CEO of a prospective partner company once told us: “I have three innovations, and I have no one inside to drive them.” A good problem to have, perhaps, but a problem nonetheless. An innovation that never makes it to market is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. And in our experience, nothing holds innovation back more than a lack of appreciation for the level of organizational and cultural shift that’s often necessary to support all of the critical stages required for success:

  1. Identify new opportunities and ideate truly disruptive products in response
  2. Execute the work and effort to commercialize them and fully bring to market
  3. Support the product over the longer term, treating it as a full-class citizen within the larger, pre-existing product portfolio

We asked Virginia Stewart, one of Nottingham Spirk’s seasoned Client Relationship Managers, to relay some of what she’s observed in partnerships.

The org chart and career concerns

Virginia Stewart

Virginia Stewart, Client Relationship Director

When we partner with another company, we work with the partner’s senior-most executives to identify and appoint an internal “champion” for the project. The champion is our primary (though certainly not only) contact and is responsible for facilitating communication and driving progress between meetings of the NS and partner-client’s teams. In the beginning, we spend a lot of time discussing and planning for the realignments that might be necessary within the partner’s organization to see the project to completion.

“Early on,” Stewart explains, “I look at organizations from the standpoint of, how is this going to be nurtured on their end?” This means from start to finish, from ideation through manufacturing and marketing. Sometimes the partner’s team assumes that NS will handle all of that, but we stress that the partner needs to own the entire process, in order to support the innovation in the long term and to build upon it. This is how growth is sustained. Ideas still need care when they’re ready to leave the incubator. While much of the heavy lifting of new product innovation can be outsourced to a partner like NS, at the end of the day, responsibility for marketing, distributing and supporting the product post-launch falls to the company that owns it.

The problem is that this seemingly simple concept runs headlong into a fundamental fact about most large, successful companies — they are hyper-focused on efficiency. Finding faster and less expensive ways to do everything is deeply ingrained, and often plays a significant factor in determining compensation and promotions. Innovation, however, is not a tidy, linear process that maps itself readily to these kinds of scorecards. It can be messy, chaotic and plodding. Helping partners with traditional corporate cultures understand this, and to make adjustments in support of the ambiguity — not just because it’s inevitable but because it’s beneficial — is another layer of our work with partners, separate from core product development areas such as insights, design and engineering.

For those tasked to root out ambiguity, however, the creative process can be frightening. The commitment to a project can be “fragile,” Stewart says; even champions who start off with enthusiasm can suffer bouts of cold feet. This is neither uncommon nor frustrating for us; there is nothing outrageous about being afraid that one project can make or break people’s careers — especially if they’re uncertain whether their purported mandate for innovation and disruptive risk-taking has not risen to the uppermost echelons of their organization.

This holds true for the many Vice Presidents and Directors of Innovation we frequently meet. Sometimes the companies creating these roles understand that true innovation requires more than making the word part of someone’s title; sometimes they don’t. Many of these folks have few direct reports — especially little to no operational reports — and soon find that they are hemmed in by varying levels of resistance from the individuals and departments whose cooperation they need to move the product concept from the successful focus group to manufacturing, in market sales pilot, and beyond. Culture can temper enthusiasm for the boldest ideas. But culture can change, with ongoing, vocal support from the C-suite, and a clear roadmap delimitating the who, what and how for every aspect of bringing a wholly new product to market within the existing organizational framework of the company.

The idea is less than half the battle

Sometimes internal support is strong, however, and we have to counsel our partner to handle a different issue — slowing down, and moving through the logical steps. Stewart recalls attended a meeting at which an executive led a discussion of all the possible “hows” of bringing a planned product innovation to market — licensing deals, distribution partnerships to extend market reach, etc. — but the actual product didn’t exist yet; it wasn’t even defined. There are myriad ways that even the clearest idea can change through the design, engineering, prototyping and testing phases, any of which can alter plans for manufacturing, marketing and launch. These stages should not be treated as distinct; they overlap and inform each other, with a cause-and-effect pattern throughout the cycle. In this particular example we explained how the development of the market opportunity and product approach to target more disruptive opportunities would “unlock” and reveal areas such as partnerships and alternative sales distribution models as we proceeded. Starting with a pre-determined approach in these areas would actually undermine the process of product innovation, not help it advance any faster.

In another case, a partner with an innovation with many potential applications planned to design and launch more than 40 different products across a wide range of markets, some of which were thoroughly saturated. We call this the “world domination” effect — getting so excited so early in the process that the zeal to race ahead unrestrained undermines the focus, rigor and discipline that innovation actually requires. Stewart advised a more methodical and selective approach, focusing on the markets most ripe for disruption with a number of product platforms greatest odds of success. Advancement into additional areas was better suited for a strategic product roadmap, rather than a rash, scatter-shot approach which would sap marketing budgets and strain post-launch customer service resources.

Innovation calls for introspection

There is no one way to innovate. But every organization can improve its capacity for ideation and execution through clear-eyed assessment of where it is, where it wants to be and all of the steps necessary to get there. The most essential element is trusting the process and the people guiding it.


Download our companion to this article, Three Key Areas of Business Innovation Consideration — a collection of the most critical questions an organization needs to consider at the various development stages in order to assess its preparedness to bring disruptive production innovations to market.


Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.


About us: Nottingham Spirk is a business innovation and product design firm with an unrivaled record of delivering disruptive consumer goods, medical devices, and packaging design solutions to market. We collaborate with Fortune 1,000 companies, funded start-ups and non-profit organizations to discover, design and execute product programs and strategic business platforms that will wow customers, grow markets and generate new revenue streams. Learn more about what makes us different here.

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