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Flying the Pirates’ Flag for Innovation

By Bernhard Kerres

Over the last months I had the joy to advise several companies on how to deal with innovative ideas which could turn into a business. Many companies are full of innovative ideas but find it difficult to operationalize these. I often recommend the book Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis. Although almost 20-years old it is still one of the best books on that subject.

Based on this book and my experience in Silicon Valley I recommend three main elements for successfully bringing innovative ideas closer to a real business:

Freedom for the innovators

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Apple flies a pirate flag in front of its headquarters in Cupertino. The pirate flag has an important place in Apple’s history. In 1983 it became the symbol of the rebellious team around Steve Jobs which eventually created the legendary Macintosh computer.

But why the pirate flag so important for Apple in the early 1980s? Steve Jobs wanted to create a team away from the growing Apple Inc. which lost much of its start-up culture. He wanted the Macintosh team to be free, creative.

Apple did what many others did – Lockheed Martin, HP, Xerox – they disconnected their innovation teams from the existing organization. Completely. These pirate teams were in different locations, were not bound by any corporate rules, and created their own culture. This was crucial to ensure that the teams attracted some the best innovative talent and stayed focused on their development.

Recognition for the entrepreneurs

Innovators and entrepreneurs share many traits. Many of them are introverts but also like to be recognized for what they have achieved. Have you ever looked inside an Apple Macintosh? There one finds the signatures of all team members of the Macintosh team. You have to break a Macintosh to see them but this was all the recognition the innovators wanted.

Similar to artists, innovators leave a signature of their work. Some software developers have a certain way to write code and leave their signature hidden in the code only to be found by real specialists.

These examples show that giving innovation teams recognition is important – independently if they were successful in their development or not. Giving the recognition is not straight forward and does not necessarily follow the human resources policies of a corporation. Understanding the people behind the innovation teams, their needs, their motivation is essential.

An ambassador for both sides

Even with all the freedom innovator teams require there still needs to be a connection to the corporation. Creating, maintaining and managing this connection is difficult without jeopardizing the independence of the innovators and the culture of the corporation.

My recommendation is to have an ambassador going backwards and forwards between the innovators and the corporation. This ambassador needs to be a seasoned person with the experience and cloud of an executive in a corporation and the acceptance in innovators’ teams which should come from personal start-up experience. Finding such people is not simple. But they are the key to the success.

At the corporation they need to report directly to the board and have the trust and the ear of the board. The ambassadors understand the corporate culture, the red tape, the decision making processes. If a company takes innovation seriously they need to give ambassadors direct access.

At the pirates’ teams the ambassador’s role is much more of a mentor and facilitator. This requires being accepted by entrepreneurs, understanding their professional life choices and speaking a similar language from experience. Only then can they carefully steer the team, drive for results, translate the corporate vision for them wherever relevant.

With a strong foundation in the Mittelstand, Europe has an exceptional starting point for innovation. But innovation will not really happen in corporations if the innovators and entrepreneurs are not set free from the established organizations.

“An Opera Singer in Silicon Valley“ might best describe Bernhard Kerres. After singing with stars such as José Carreras, Bernhard went into high tech advising telecom operators on the upcoming mobile internet, and then becoming CEO and CFO of tech companies with USD 200 m turnover. But classical music lured him back when the Vienna Concert House appointed him as CEO and Artistic Director for six years. Seizing the opportunity Bernhard brought together tech and classical music and founded HELLO STAGE, the largest classical music community online, often called the LinkedIn for classical music.

Bernhard is a sought after public speaker and regularly teaches for London Business School and other leading universities.

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