The best place to start is to ask whether or not the corporation hosts customer meetings that focus exclusivelyon innovation.
(A reminder of my preamble for this series of messages:)
My previous four posts proposed a set of interview questions that assist an intrapreneur in evaluating the innovation culture of a potential employer. Keep in mind that an intrapreneur is an inventor that delivers high-tech ideas in the context of a large corporation.
Does your corporation host face-to-face innovation meetings with customers?
Drill into the relationship between the corporation and their customers. Keep in mind that all of your interviewers will paint a good picture of this relationship. Most corporations have “customer councils” where detailed feedback of corporate products is evaluated by customers. Ask, however, about specific examples of targeted meetings where the goal is to determine “where the customer desires to be in 3-5 years”.
These types of meetings (often called “advisory councils”) state up front that there is an outright ban on any sort of corporate sales pitch or marketing fluff. They often require an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) because the corporation presents an intimate look at the roadmap and technologies that are under consideration. Customers have the chance to chime in with strong approval and/or strong disagreement. Most importantly they are able to outline the critical use cases that their businesses are anticipating as they plan for the future. This type of information is a critical starting point for innovation. Find out who can attend these meetings (and ask whether or not you can go, too!).
Does your corporation participate in open innovation?
Face-to-face innovation meetings that require an NDA are important. It is equally important, however, that a corporation provide an open innovation portal for customers to access the latest thinking and research. These portals should be collaborative in nature. Customers should have the ability to propose ideas and collaborate openly in full view of other customers and employees. Corporate research efforts should be documented (along with the names of the employees that are driving the innovation), along with a list of partner customers.
These types of portals should also include an active catalogue of university and industry partnerships. If the corporation has a relationship with a particular university, the nature of this relationship should be advertised. If a corporation contributes to industry councils and/or performs research with other corporations, these relationships need to be highlighted and customers should be encouraged to join in.
Does the corporation promote field employees to Distinguished Engineer/Fellow?
In a previous article we discussed the importance of providing a purely technical career path for corporate intrapreneurs. This same career path should be made available for all of the corporate employees that work directly with customers. Once these employees are recognized as a DE or Fellow, they are easier to identify, and they can make themselves available to share their customer experiences and opinions. They are highly motivated to solve customer problems and are hungry to participate in driving customer needs into innovative solutions.
Ask for the names of DEs and Fellows from the field. And then ask if you can meet with them.
Does the corporation encourage spontaneous customer visits?
If an intrapreneur is not a field-facing employee, it is critical that they have the freedom to arrange face-to-face visits with customers. Most corporations have scheduled opportunities for customers to meet with the developers of their products. However, if an intrapreneur is in the process of driving towards an innovative new direction, they often can’t wait six months for the next opportunity to collaborate. Or they may need to target a specific customer that doesn’t or can’t attend corporate conferences.
In my particular case, I was exploring some innovative new directions for products related to long-term digital archiving and preservation. I needed validation and guidance that I was on the right track. I became aware of a customer currently using our products for the purpose of digital archiving. This customer, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, was in the process of scanning thousands of documents from JFK’s presidency. I received permission to visit them.
Not only did I receive valuable confirmation for my own efforts, but I was able to highlight new software upgrades that would assist them in their current effort. It ended up being a win-win situation.
These questions should help you determine the level of commitment that your employer places on direct innovation and collaboration with customers. The importance of this cannot be understated: It is the most important, the most refreshing, and themost impactful of all attempts at corporate (and individual) innovation.
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