Innovation Perspectives – Trench Innovation

by Steve Todd

This is the first of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on the following question:

“Where should innovation reside in an organization, and who should ‘own’ or manage innovation?”

To kick it off, here is ‘Trench Innovation’:

by Steve Todd

Home for Innovation?Where should innovation reside in an organization?

For many decades the answers have ranged from ‘dedicated research facilities’ to ‘globally distributed research teams’. Hewlett-Packard has HP-Labs in Palo Alto. IBM has eight distributed research teams.

The highest executive levels within a corporation have looked to these teams and asked “where do we go next?”

These research teams often ‘hand off’ the latest innovative ideas to dedicated development organizations.

A recent article in the NY Times is questioning the efficiency of dedicated corporate R&D labs.

The truth of the matter is that innovation cannot solely reside in these organizations any more.

Innovation should reside in the corporate trenches.

Innovation by Pain

Innovation by PainConsider a salesperson that loses a deal to a competitive rival, or a field engineer being raked over the coals for a product bug or feature deficiency. Are they motivated to come up with an innovative solution?

Consider a software engineer with a legacy software architecture that’s hard to maintain. Consider a manager leading a team with a seemingly impossible deadline. Think about the pressure they feel when sales and support report the urgent laundry list of problems. Are the developers motivated to come up with a better way of doing things?

The people in the trenches are feeling the pain, and they operate with a sense of urgency that maximizes productivity. If innovation is all about the delivery of ideas, then the trenches is where innovation truly belongs.

Employees in the trenches are not motivated by solutions coming from a corporate R&D lab. They often view the research facility as an ivory tower.

My message to the trenches is this: you don’t need permission from your corporation to innovate. Just do it. But it’s a lot easier if the corporation knows how to leverage intrapreneurs. Here are two ways that a corporation can ‘own’ or ‘manage’ trench innovation.

“What are you working on that I don’t know about”

Hidden Innovation - SkunkworksLine managers working for a company with a ‘trench innovation’ mentality should be regularly asking their employees the above question. They should challenge their direct reports to pursue answers to pressing customer needs by researching creative solutions in a skunkworks fashion.

Some managers will punish their employees for working on solutions that are outside of their core job. I’m suggesting that managers encourage them to do just that. This is the most direct way to ‘manage’ innovation.

Corporate Ownership

Innovation RingmasterOwnership of this type of innovation should be loosely coupled. A central monitoring entity should exist, typically in the office of the corporate CTO. They should be innovation ringmasters under the big tent of corporate, academic, and industrial circles.

The final piece of corporate ownership is a strong social media strategy. There needs to be a corporate backbone that enables collaboration between corporate intrapreneurs, academia, industry, and customers. Managers and employees should ‘bubble up’ their ideas through this mechanism.

When the highest levels of corporate executives asks “where do we go next?”, they should look to their innovators in the trenches.

They’re the ones standing right next to the customer.

You can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles published so far from the different contributing authors on “Where should innovation reside?” by clicking the link in this sentence.


Steve ToddSteve Todd is a high-tech inventor and author of the book Innovate With Influence. An EMC Intrapreneur with over 140 patent applications and billions in product revenue, he writes about innovation on his personal blog, the Information Playground.

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