Create an innovation colony within your company or die trying

In my March 13 post I made clear the stark choice facing businesses: foster continuous internal innovation or die. I pointed to the lessons of Steve Blank in his book Holding a Cat by the Tail: Lessons Learned from an Entrepreneurial Life. In case you missed it, one of Blank’s key ideas is:

Innovation in new markets comes out of opportunity, chaos, and rapid experimentation. Highly organized, established businesses are challenged to create that internal chaotic startup environment.

What have you done to create that internal environment and ensure you “don’t let your company fail”? One very successful enterprise found a way long before anyone even knew what innovative disruption was. While this particular example is from a Fortune 500 company, the lessons learned are applicable to all businesses from the smallest to the largest.  Lockheed Aircraft Corp., now Lockheed Martin (since 1995), is a global leader in the defense sector. In 1943, needing to meet emergent needs of a country at war, Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson and his team “… broke the rules, challenging the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress.”

The now famous Skunk Works was the result. Through its wisdom in accepting and engaging these internal disruptive innovators rather than insisting they do things the standard way, the company rose to among the most successful in the defense industry and maintains that position to this day. In fact, it created an ongoing culture of disruptive innovation – but more on that a little later.

In the technological frenzy of new products and companies being created in greater numbers and faster than ever before, anyone capable of creating something must ask themselves whether to work for a company or go out on their own. The current environment is safe for no company, least of all the largest. Nor is it safe for individuals – particularly the most gifted, in high demand, ICT professionals.

The recently released IFIP IP3 Global Industry Council 2020 Skills Assessment Report provides insight on this group. The report suggests that rather than commit to a company that may or may not commit to them, they may opt out of corporate employment leading to an “increase in the number of teams for hire that will come fully prepared to undertake a project. Team members will self-invest in their skills, knowledge, and product capability to deliver additional capacity to existing organizations.” That will work for some companies, but wouldn’t it be better to not only attract the best but also turn them into your own disruptive innovation leadership team? How will you do that? Thankfully a former Lockheed Martin leader has an answer for you.

Remember the culture of “rule breakers” I mentioned earlier? Award winning, Lockheed Martin Software Engineer, Dominic Holt is the modern embodiment of that. Holt co-founded ICT’s next iteration of Skunk Works.   In a recent interview, Holt shared insights gleaned from his co-founder role in the latest Lockheed internal disruptor “The Shark Tank” which is involved in capturing $1 billion in annual revenue and growing rapidly.

Holt describes the birth of the Shark Tank this way:

“I was a young upstart engineer and it really opened my eyes to how big companies work and how in particular Lockheed worked. As you would find in any big corporation there were a number of inefficiencies and problems we found and we ended up making a bunch of suggestions to the division president at the time about how maybe we could improve some of those inefficiencies. Some of them turned into really great ideas and they were implemented and some of them fell by the wayside….One of the co-founders was enamored with Skunk Works and shared his wisdom of Skunk Works with us. So we were thinking about ways we could provide all these things together for the business and the best way we could possibly come up with (after discussing it at length), was creating a new brand and creating our own organization and that’s how Shark Tank was born… Every company has a different culture but we manufactured our own culture by crowdsourcing and what it meant to be a Shark and part of a group that was trying to do innovative things. We came up with a different group of core values and we went from there…”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Dominic spent eight years at Lockheed Martin recently leaving to pursue a growing startup, business, and investment portfolio. During those eight years he developed a way forward for companies to create the needed internal innovation culture now required for continued growth and success.

How can you learn from his success? Always one to share, Dominic, is delivering a one hour webinar through the Association for Computing Machinery covering his journey of building an innovation colony at a Fortune 500 company and the many barriers faced bringing that vision into existence. If you want to set your company on the continuous innovation path this Nov 4 ACM webinar “Innovation Colonies; Disrupting the Fortune 500“ with live Q&A is a must do.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Dave O'Leary
Dave O'Leary
Dave is a founding managing partner of REDDS Venture Investment Partners ( His career in post-secondary education included roles as CIO, Vice-President and acting President. Dave is a member of the Practitioner Board of the Association for Computing Machinery. He chairs the ACM Practitioner Board Marketing Committee and is also a second term member of the Board's Professional Development Committee. (ACM - Association for Computing Machinery--official IFIP international member representative, largest and most respected international computing science, research, education, innovation professional association well known for their AM Turing Award (Nobel of computing) with 1 million USD prize, 1.5 millions user digital library, 2 million reach, learning center, Applicative conference, Queue magazine, 200 conferences/events, 78 publications/news, 37 Special Interest Groups). He is a board director of the Global Industry Council and the immediate Past President of the Canadian Information Processing Society of British Columbia. Dave is co-founder and director of an ISV computer technology business and is currently leading and advising start ups in the USA, China, Europe, and Canada. He serves as a task force member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and is the past chair of the Canadian National Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology. He served two terms as a director of the Canadian National Information and Communications Technology Sector Council advising on National technology and economic strategy. Dave has appeared as a panel member in a number of Microsoft webcasts and has presented globally on the business and technical impacts of technology in training. He is the recipient (2002) of the highest national award for leadership in post-secondary education.

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