How to Scale Invention in Your Organization

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essays / orgdesign

Classically, the marketing department’s role within the larger organization has been to spread value. To take the raw product of the organization and to distribute a product or message across geographical boundaries and into the hearts and minds of a target market. Today, more and more, the role of the marketing department has become one of creating value (from entertainment to service). Market shares have solidified, mediums have matured, attention spans have shortened – and novelty and utility, in one form or another, are the antidote du jour to consumer apathy.

My team helps marketing departments develop digital products and services to solve their business problems. Until recently in my career, that battle was mostly fought to produce a single new product or service for a client. Lately, however, we’ve been confronting a new problem – scale. Clients are hungry for more innovative ways to reach and engage people, but the marketing department was never designed to scale in terms of Invention. Invention simply requires new processes and paradigms beyond the purchase and production of media vehicles.

As we have approached this problem with existing clients, I’ve been slowly cataloging behaviors and traits required to achieve scale of Invention within an organization and humbly submit these conditions for your review and dissection.

define the purpose

Modern organizations need to shift from an obsession with growth to a pursuit of fitness with their current environment. Growth is merely one strategy within seeking fitness – one that if followed too passionately can have dramatic negative consequences. On a smaller scale, organizations should seek Invention for a variety of reasons: strategic advantages, press, intellectual property, and long term fitness. Invention, however, is a poor short-term bet. Organizations need to expand their time horizons when pursuing such novel opportunities (let’s not forget that it took over 70 years for the telephone to reach 50% household adoption in the U.S. from its first emergence as a commercial product).

Speaking of purpose, organizations with a mission beyond profits have a conceptual advantage beyond their bottom-line driven counterparts. Purpose makes a blue sky easier to navigate. One of our clients approached us with the organizational purpose of “helping people make smarter decisions through data,” which immediately gave our Invention team fertile ground to plow for new product and service ideas. The best Invention concepts prove the organization’s mission – and, not surprisingly, are less likely to be culled at the next budget meeting.

prepare the environment

You can’t drop a seed on a linoleum floor and expect it to grow.

Invention is not possible, at scale, without say-so from the C-suite. Inventions require considerable internal resources and may expose the organization to unexplored legal risk. In my experience, the timeline of inventing in seclusion is finite and once the veil is pierced, work is delayed or halted entirely. Invention ideas and passion often come from the bottom, but, in large organizations, resources come from above. With that reality in mind, I’ve found the following critically important:

Holistic Goals

Related to purpose, successful organizations work from the same set of guiding principles which exist in harmony with one another. Harmonized goals require an organization to truly face the realities of their strengths and weaknesses within the current market.

Implicit Permission

It’s one thing to require approval from the C-suite, it’s quite another to have to seek that approval with regularity. Leaders should empower their Invention subordinates with implicit permission for sustained periods of time (at least 6 months) so they can direct their efforts toward fulfilling their goals, not retailing their efforts.

Geographic Distance

Plenty of studies have shown that physical distance from the C-suite actually benefits innovation; it’s pretty simple to understand why: Invention requires longer time horizons and protection from day-to-day fire drills and political whims. These groups are typically labeled as labs, skunk works, or R&D groups. Of course, there are political consequences to creating a special group within a larger organism. It’s critical to not entirely firewall this group from its peers and it can be beneficial to use other groups to feed problems or ideas into the Invention process.


The only way you can achieve implicit permission and geographic distance is with a charismatic and competent leader who takes ownership and responsibility for Invention. The right candidate for this type of position is typically someone who is practiced at an organization’s internal politics yet is comfortable working outside of that structure to get things done.

Dedicated Budgets

As critical as distance, Invention requires a defined budget, one that cannot be decimated at the first sign of trouble. We typically instruct our clients to set aside 10% of their marketing budget (production + media) for this effort.

Team Structure

We operate as a partner to our existing Fortune 500 clients, so our structure might be different than if wholly executed within an organization. In comparison, we operate at a price premium, but we offer technological knowledge and experience along with the benefit of geographic distance. At the end of the day, a lean cross-functional team that has proven chemistry is ideal, but the ideal team is rarely available.

Generative Relationships

This is a term plucked from the study of complex systems; generative relationships are an approach to relationship building which asks participants to build connections within organizations and beyond before there is a clear motive for it. At any time, a successful Invention practice should be cultivating a host of relationships beyond the walls of the organization that don’t necessarily fit today’s strategy. When I worked on the original Fiesta Movement, many of our never-been-done-before media executions were a result of generative relationships which had been established far before our need for them.

develop a pipeline

Finally, in order to juggle multiple Inventions at once, organizations are benefitted from adopting a pipeline structure similar to the methodology used in the pharmaceutical industry. For example, in pharma, new drugs move through a 3-stage process that validates and prepares the drug for widespread use. In Stage One, early-stage drugs are tested simply for efficacy; does the solution demonstrate some level of impact on the problem? Stage Two is where dosage is defined. How much of the solution is required to have maximum impact with minimal side-effects? Stage Three is when scale is finally tested to uncover unforeseen side-effects or unintended consequences. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification of the drug process in order to demonstrate its application to marketing Invention. In my experience, though, this has been a fruitful model to mimic in our practices. But beware, as has been said, “all models fail, some are simply more useful than others.” Most important of all to remember, the goal of the pipeline is to fail/iterate early and cheaply in the service of retaining more resources to scale any successful bets.

Stage One – The Pitch/Prototype

  • Goal: to cheaply determine if an Invention is capable of solving the problem for which it is designed
  • Form: Minimum Viable Concept– whenever possible, a pitch (video, Launchrock page, Adwords campaign, etc.) or prototype that lands the overall idea
  • Feedback: if desired groups engage/spread pitch, feedback from user-testing of prototype
  • Threshold Consideration: best if determined by a scale goal (e.g. move the 3 best performing Stage One concepts to Stage Two every six-months)

Stage Two – The Safe-Fail Pilot

  • Goal: go-to market with a safe-fail pilot program to test user acquisition, engagement, and sharing
  • Form: Minimum Viable Product (for sake of complexity and development, restrict A/B testing of functionality at this stage but explore A/B testing of user acquisition strategies), limit pilot by quantity of users or size of geographic area
  • Feedback: Analytics and feedback from a select group of users within a qualitative program
  • Threshold Consideration: best if determined by budget and resources compared to cost-projection of entering Stage Three

Stage Three – Scale and ROI

  • Goal: to uncover/overcome the risks and opportunities of incrementally scaling the product
  • Form: Feature-complete Beta, which is slowly opened to a wider user base
  • Feedback: Analytics, bug reporting, and qualitative feedback
  • Threshold Consideration: ROI projections

Stage Four – Osmosis

  • Goal: to bring the product into the offering and support of the larger organization
  • Form: Release candidate, vetted and approved version 1.0
  • Feedback: Analytics, bug reporting, and feature request
  • Threshold Consideration: from here, products can evolve or they can be sun-setted

As in the pharma world, organizations should pay attention to the distribution of Inventions throughout the pipeline and their overall hit-rate vs cost-to-bring-to-market. Again, the goal is to maximize the organization’s hit rate while minimizing the cost-to-bring-to-market. Over time, any organization will find that this involves a careful balance of efficiency versus adaptability.

So, that’s our learning to date. As we continue to advise clients in scaling Invention, I plan to impart more of our learning and our failings here.


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