How to design your own innovation accelerator: a checklist9 min read

Vincent PirenneBoard Of Innovation, Business Model Innovation, Innovate like a startup, Intrapreneurship

I decided to write a post to give you some insights on how we designed our latest accelerator program and what we learned from it. We recently finished an exciting dragons’ den of an innovation accelerator program for Owens-Illinois (O-I). O-I is the global market leader in the production of glass bottles (listed in the fortune 500). Fun-fact: Approximately one of every two glass containers made worldwide is made by O-I. The structural innovation program was focused on the European market and included participants from 6 nationalities in- and outside Europe.

Let’s kick off with my definition of a corporate Accelerator: “An innovation program to embed structural innovation in an organisation by supporting corporate teams to create and develop new business concepts outside of the standard process, within a short period of time”. The biggest difference with shorter innovation programs (e.g. a hackathon) is the fact that you give teams the chance to structurally incorporate a new mindset and methodology to execute radically new ideas .

Innovation accelerator framework

The framework above is a general diagram that I use as a template for an accelerator program. We used this during our latest accelerator; in this case each block represented one month. You can use this as a framework but you have to keep in mind that every accelerator needs to be adjusted according to your own organization. This framework represents one ‘run’ of an accelerator. After the ‘go / no go’ phase, you should repeat the process, of course this is in paralel with the execution of the ‘corporate startups’ of the first run.

I selected 9 bullet points / questions that I use as a checklist when designing an innovation accelerator. You can find my learnings from our latest accelerator, in *italic under each bullet point.

1. Innovation drivers & barriers: Did you capture drivers and overcome barriers?

Each organisation has drivers and barriers (stakeholders, processes, market situations…) that make or break your accelerator. Drivers boost the chances of success. Brakes might slow you down or in the worst case kill your accelerator. It is very helpful to discover and share them upfront so you can act accordingly.

Since our latest accelerator was for a very large multinational organisation, one of the key barriers we identified was the difficulty to connect the right people to the right stakeholders at the right time. In order to overcome this brake we decided to give each team a dedicated sponsor. The sponsor had the role to share knowledge, connect people and open doors where needed. This was clearly an added value to the process.

2. Scoping: Did you define the scope of your Accelerator?

An accelerator should focus on mid- to long term innovations. The long term goals of an organisation are generally more ‘high level’ in comparison to the shorter term objectives. To make sure the results of the accelerator meet the long term goals, all relevant decision makers should be aligned on what (not) to expect as a potential result. You can use the following tool to map out potential results of the accelerator.

Offers VS market matrix

We used the tool above to align the expectations of top management with what (not) to expect as an outcome of the accelerator. The matrix goes from incremental innovations (existing offers & markets) to radical innovations (radically new offers and markets). We shared a variety of ideas with some key stakeholders and asked them to map them out on the matrix. The result of this exercise really helped us to figure out the decision-makers expectations relating to the accelerator.  We agreed on what could be perceived as adjacent (mid-term) and what as more radically (long term). This helped us to evaluate ideas differently according to their ‘innovativeness’ to the company.

3. Speed: Is your accelerator plan ambitious but realistic?

It is important to set milestones at the end of each phase. They will help you to stay on track. Make sure to be realistic when you define these milestones, in order to avoid postponing your them.

*During our latest accelerator we had to postpone some milestones, due to a large amount of stakeholders. In our next run we plan to avoid this problem by blocking our mid-term milestones well in advance.

4. Continuity: Did you plan when to start your second run?

Accelerators should follow an iterative process in which new runs begin when the previous one ends. This basic principle is essential to guarantee continuity and to structurally create an internal innovation culture.

*We planned to start the second run of the accelerator at the beginning of next year. We will do this with new teams and new ideas. Since we recently finished the first dragons’ den we are currently rolling out some ‘corporate-startups’.

5. Lean (build-measure-learn): Did you implement learnings from previous innovation programs?

Use the lean startup principle to design each run of your accelerator. Implement learnings from previous experiences with (other) innovation programs.

*Since O-I is a very industrial B2B company with no experience with innovation accelerator programs, we started with a ‘pilot run’ of the accelerator. A ‘pilot run’ is a test version of the full program where you validate the effectiveness of the process, within a certain part of the organisation (BU, department, product group,..), before rolling it out within the entire organisation. During the pilot run we evaluated the result of each phase and pivoted if needed. Doing this pilot run helped us to build a strong innovation program based on learnings instead of assumptions.

6. Selection criteria: Did you define new idea selection criteria?

Define 3 to 5 selection criteria, based on the innovation goals and scope of the accelerator, at the start of the program. A  some key rules when designing the criteria. 1. less is more: too many criteria will make the process too complex and bureaucratic.  2. Validate these criteria with all relevant stakeholders: this makes it easier to decide without their interference. 3. Share the criteria with all participants at the start of the accelerator, this gives guidance to the participants. 4. The selection criteria should differ from your standard KPI’s! They are focused on long term goals, rather than short term profitability.

Here are some selection criteria we used during our latest accelerator:

1. Is this concept creating value for the user? 2. Sustainability and market trend focus 3.  Market potential 4. Newness to market 5. (Unfair) Competitive advantage. When decisions needed to be made we rated each concept based on these general selection criteria. We tried not to use short term profitability as a criteria, since this cannibalises the most radical concepts. 

7. A strong & flexible innovation lead (IL): Do you have the right skills? (open mind – entrepreneurial – internal network)

The quality of the IL is crucial to the success of an accelerator. Have in mind that the role of the IL changes in each phase of the process. Before the accelerator, the IL designs the process, selects the right tools and aligns stakeholder expectations. During the ideation, the IL facilitates the right tools to create and collect as many ideas as possible. During the development phase the IL supports the teams and re-connect all relevant stakeholders. An accelerator will bring a lot of people out of their comfort zone, make sure not to fall back into traditional thinking processes. It can be helpful to have external support to pull you out of your comfort zone and increase the acceptance of risks.

*During our latest accelerator we had a strong internal Innovation lead. She had a very open mind, an entrepreneurial attitude and network. This was very helpful, both during the design and execution of the process. Though this was the case, many participants stated that the external support of an execrator was essential in the execution of innovations, outside of the organisations ‘comfort zone’.

8. Commitment: Is your company able/willing to invest in good ideas?

The success of an accelerator depends highly on the commitment of the organisation. One of the key elements is commitment to investment in the corporate start-ups at the dragons’ den.

*Here are some learnings that we got on how to increase commitment of the organisation:
1. Give internal and external visibility to the accelerator, not only will you get important feedback, but it will automatically be more difficult to kill the program.
2. Include an intermediate ‘evaluation moment’. Give top management the chance to evaluate and select some of the ideas before the final dragons’ den.
3. Create strong but realistic business cases based on market validation. Hereby you can show the actual return on investment of concepts, this will make it easier to assign a dedicated budget.

9. Intrapreneurs: Are all participants (potential) intrapreneurs and do they use ‘teaming’ skills?

Important to remember is that alongside the idea, your organisation actually invest in a team. Ideas can still pivot; in fact the success of a project is mainly defined by how effective a team can build on their learnings and change course if needed.

Each phase needs a different team composition to effectively achieve its goal. Therefore the startup team should have a strong team lead be but in the meantime be organic, meaning that team members can join and leave the team according to what expertise or network is needed to achieve a goal. In order to keep continuity, a team should only change after the domain selection or dragons’ den and one team member should stay, to share the team’s learnings. This mindset of ‘flexible teams’ requires a lot of new skills. If you want to know more about this topic, you can read the book or HBR article about ‘teaming’. (Edmondson, Amy C. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Jossey-Bass, 2012.)

*Due to the diversity of our ideas we changed the composition of our teams almost completely during our last program. This influenced the speed of the process since a lot of participants needed time to gain ownership over the ideas. In our second run we will focus more on selecting true intrapreneurs from the start and keep the idea owners in the teams as long as possible. On top of that we’ll use more ‘teaming’ methods to keep the dynamic within the teams, even when they change on the go.

Good luck with the design of your internal accelerator program. Feel free to add your checklist and or comments below. If you have any further questions when designing your accelerator feel free to contact me via: vincent@boardofinnovation.com or twitter: @vincentpirenne