Businesses increasingly realize they must reimagine innovation. Some use design to reinvent the face of their brand. Others make smart acquisitions, absorbing younger brands for a fresh perspective. And many companies innovate through internal incubation teams. Acting like startups within the brand, they concept, prototype and test new products independent of the day-to-day business, incubating their ideas to create disruptive results.
With powerful outcomes for brands like Nike, Oreo and Google, such teams point to the next frontier of innovation. To better understand their success, consider a helpful analogy in one of the summer’s most anticipated sporting events: The Wimbledon Tennis Championship.
Wimbledon is uniquely magical. The excitement in the stands, the feats of athleticism, and the unpredictable creative moments make Wimbledon a delight to watch. At the core of this magic are three simple elements: teamwork, training and a moonshot approach. These are also the keys to building teams for incubating innovation. Within each is a lesson for brands seeking their next breakthrough solution.
Lesson 1: Build great teams
Many believe that tennis is not a team sport. Yet without the help of coaches, trainers, and fans, Wimbledon champions would never succeed. The Nadals and Williams sisters of the tennis world represent the face of a larger team that together produces greatness.
Innovation, too, is misunderstood as the work of one or two great minds. However, innovation is a team sport. By bringing together diverse skill sets, un-stifled by excessive oversight and led with passion, incubation teams can find great success.
Nike's The Innovation Kitchen is comprised of 125 innovators that know how to produce results. This team brings together a wide body of expertise to fail in the right direction. With products like the Nike Fuel Band and the Flyknit Racer, Nike is staying ahead -- and its diverse team is key to its success.
Lesson 2: Train hard
The athleticism of Wimbledon competitors is mesmerizing. Core to their performance is a simple practice: train like an athlete who wants to win at Wimbledon. Li Na trained an exhausting six hours a day every day of the off-season this year. It was so intense she nearly quit. "After three days I was so tired I called my husband and said, 'I really want to retire.' It was only three days. How could I continue for three weeks or all the year?"
Innovation teams must also train to exhaustion. Through iteration and failing fast, teams hone their skill. By creating projects designed to practice innovative approaches, incubation teams flex the muscles necessary for breakthrough solutions.
Last year, Oreo celebrated its 100th anniversary with the Daily Twist campaign. For 100 days a small incubation team produced an ad using that day’s hottest news as fodder. The campaign was also a training exercise. At this year’s Super Bowl that training paid off. Within 4 minutes of a massive power outage, Twitter exploded over Oreo’s now infamous ‘dunk in the dark’ ad. Training with the Daily Twist campaign was essential to Oreo’s Super Bowl win.
Lesson 3: Shoot for the moon
With shots between the legs, charismatics attacks and aggressively challenging calls, Wimbledon athletes take great risks to win. James Blake puts it plainly: “I'm never going to win a match playing conservative.”
Similarly, incubation teams must take risks and autonomy is essential. Independence allows them to ask the “what if” questions that lead to breakthroughs.
Google X highlights this thinking perfectly. Mostly separated from the core business, this team shoots for the moon with innovations like the first street legal self-driving car and Google Glass. This independent team is free to aggressively push innovation.The magic of Wimbledon 2013 will bring tennis fans to their feet, celebrating the achievements of talented athletes. Brands should let these athletes inspire their thinking as well, incubating innovation that captures the magic of teamwork, training and moonshot thinking. With these tools, the possibilities are endless.