Corporate practice is significantly defined by change. As organisations, Corporations must stay relevant, match or exceed the pace of the competition, and understand the impact of meaningfully disruptive technologies as they emerge.
Corporate innovators, meanwhile, necessarily have an even closer relationship with change. After all, innovation is itself an agent of change; a catalyst for shaping Corporations’ forward journey.
At the media and entertainment Corporation WarnerMedia, the innovation team has that change at the forefront of its collective mind.
“We take innovation very seriously here,” says Caterina Preti, Director, Innovation & Business Development, Warner Media. “I mean, it’s lots of fun, but we also take it really seriously. Today it can feel like it is either the best of times for business or the worst of times. And what will determine if it’s the best of times or the worst of times for you as a Corporate is whether your ability to learn and change is faster than – or at least at the rate of – the market change.”
Innovation itself, Preti suggests, can serve as an engine to keep pace with that change. It’s her belief that this year’s innovation approach will be little use as next year’s. Innovation must thunder forward like few other disciplines, or risk rendering itself redundant.
“What is quite different at our company – apart from the fact that we understand change well, and we take it seriously – is that we don’t think of innovation as something happening alongside the business when there is time and budget for it, but rather something that happens every day, as part of everyone’s role, across the organisation,” Preti explains.
Internal labs, of course, have plenty of potential and can help organisations accelerate their pace of change exponentially. Indeed, WarnerMedia launched its own Innovation Lab in New York in January 2019, with a view to establishing ‘a future-forward incubator that will combine emerging technologies with content from across its operating units to create new and innovative consumer experiences and businesses’.
But to Preti, innovation labs broadly aren’t the be-all and end-all of how modern Corporate innovation can thrive. Successful innovators, Preti advises, must also embrace innovation as part of their Corporate culture, bringing every colleague on the journey, while embedding innovation practices as part of the everyday, rather than simply obsessing over embracing startup culture.
“You can employ some people that wear sneakers,” Preti offers. “You can tell them to behave like a startup – and you can ask your teams to invest in other startups or be more like a startup – but then eventually those things will probably fail like a startup. They will fail if the rest of the organisation does not buy into what they do, and does not provide them with access to the Corporate advantages like brands, customers, partners, etcetera, as well as the resources needed to make them successful.”
Equally, Preti proposes, installing startups or ‘startup-like’ units within a Corporation can effectively mean creating silos. And if Corporate innovation has a golden rule, surely it is that innovation has limited potential when constrained to internal, inward-facing teams”
“Corporations need to set up functions and business units to be able to innovate on a day-to-day basis as part of the organisation’s culture. I mean, successful innovators like Google, Amazon and other Corporates probably don’t have an innovation division. They’ve got groups of people that get together on new special projects, but they don’t have a function called ‘innovation’. Why? Because everyone’s job is to innovate.”
The idea is simple in theory, if intricate in practice. Innovation should ultimately become inherent to organisational culture at a Corporation-wide level, and be delivered through the everyday actions of a workforce. Projecting to have adopted that approach, however, shouldn’t be used as a cover to brush true innovation under the carpet.
“Integrating innovation into wider Corporate culture shouldn’t be – well – an excuse for not doing innovation work,” Preti says, with a knowing laugh.
Despite the light-hearted tone, her point is sincere. Integrating innovation across a company means proactivity is still required. It is a guided and carefully maintained pathway; not a reason to take one’s hands off the wheel.
At WarnerMedia, part of that approach comes via an effort to facilitate a ‘trickle down’ from the top of a company, with a view to permeating the entire organisation. The value, contribution, process, tools and impact of innovation, Preti believes, have a far greater chance if they can be spread through a Corporation in this way, rather than be installed via those internal ‘startup-esque’ silos.
As part of a somewhat holistic approach to integrating innovation into the fabric of an organisation, Preti and her colleagues run a ‘Leaders’ Bootcamp’, with a view to seeing integrated innovation makes its way down from the top.
“We put our business leaders in one room for two days, and we take them through a super accelerated innovation sprint, which starts with talking to customers to understand their problems, then developing ideas to address these, then sketching the best ideas, before testing them with customers and iterating them.”
That process gives the senior team hands-on experience of the process, practice and – perhaps more importantly – mindset of innovation. It gives them a chance to practice leadership behaviours that encourage innovation, and become more aware of those that stifle it, as well as put approaches and tools into practice.
That, in turn, makes them more suitably qualified when it comes to approving, supporting and guiding innovation as it trickles down from C-suite.
WarnerMedia also delivers broader initiatives and projects, like Hackathons and Innovation Sprints, running from a few hours to several weeks, open to staff of all levels, with a focus on meeting challenges or objectives handed down from a leadership team that have their own experience of the innovation process.
Ultimately, WarnerMedia has a carefully structured innovation pipeline that assures innovation is not pursued for the sake of innovation. Rather, it is designed to bridge communication and understanding of innovative practice between leadership and the rest of the company. Innovation is given the necessary space to breathe and adapt, but equally, it is guided by relatively clear objectives. The hope is that C-suite don’t just support innovation in spirit; they can help it be meaningful to WarnerMedia’s effort to keep its lead on market change.
“This is all in a way a stepping stone to lead us to a place where we will be able to innovate on a day-to day-basis,” Preti reflects, considering the broad strategy currently in place at WarnerMedia. “The ambition is to have a program that everybody can get behind, almost like a separate, parallel career track, where staff can take on innovation.”
That career track would give staff a structured, realistic way to combine balancing day job commitments with pursuing an innovative idea or concept that couples with WarnerMedia’s needs, while being guided by insight and approval from C-suite.
Such plans are for the near future, as it stands. Indeed, moving towards that goal is an act of innovation itself. But the company has a very clear sense of how innovation can be a pragmatic and clearly defined practice that knows where it wants to be going.
Change continues to happen unabated, and challenges may lie ahead. But WarnerMedia is developing an approach that it hopes will let it do much more than just respond to that change.