I’ve been fortunate at several points in my career to work on innovation. When you are on the cutting-edge there are many more questions than answers, and risks abound. Should we do A or B? Will this approach scale? Can we handle 10 transactions per second or 1,000 transactions per second? What is competitor X going to release in the next 12 months? How much do we need to charge for this service? Is this core to our business, or should we buy or outsource it?

In my experience the biggest threat to innovation is analysis paralysis and institutional fear of failure. I’m certainly not the first to make this observation, but I’ve lived it first hand for a good chunk of my career.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Large organizations are wired to succeed. The challenge is that this optimization occurs at each local level within an organization. The Development Team Lead tries to keep his team happy, deliver projects on time and keep the bug count for his module low. The Product VP tries to meet his sales targets and deliver compelling releases every year that respond to changes in the market. The Division GM tries to balance finite investments across her software portfolio, taking into account macro economic shifts and changing spending trends.

Then you arrive with a new idea…

The Development Team Leads are naturally skeptical, it’s likely going to involve doing more work with less people. The existing software has to be maintained and evolved after all…

The Product VP sees increased spend, with a very woolly and uncertain business case propping it up. What if this innovation undercuts our existing product or business model? Will this new innovation confuse our marketing and sales message? We’ve never done this before, will we even succeed?

If you can get the Division GM’s attention, often they can be very supportive, especially if the innovation echoes conversations they’ve recently had with customers. The challenge is that they can see the wood for the trees, but don’t necessarily see the trees! So plotting a course from A to B, without alienating the product teams, can be challenging. Sometimes they want to have their cake (all their existing investments) and eat it as well (innovation).

Your GMs (and Fellows in IBM’s case) are a vital mechanism to break out of local optima and potentially reach a more valuable global optimum. Easy to say, not so easy to do! These executives are extremely busy and are bombarded with pitches for “the next cool thing” all day long. You need some luck, have the right idea at the right time, and a strong business network that can support your idea at all levels of the organization. And even then sometimes you get shot down! C’est la vie! Dust yourself off, lick your wounds for long enough to recover, and try again with your next idea.

If you get some traction you need to go for it full bore. Don’t sweat the small stuff! Don’t over analyze! Create the problem! You don’t know how an approach will scale? Build something and test it. You don’t know whether to do A or B? Build A and get feedback from a customer. All this tempered with good sense, engineering judgement and realism of course… You’re not just throwing thoughts at the wall and seeing what sticks!

You’re a startup within a large organization. You need to prove your idea works and that your customers will love it. Your “seed capital” is a handful of people to work on the idea, probably sponsored by your “angel” executive. If you pass that test then you need your “Series A” to fund a decent-sized development team that can actually deliver a product to market. Several executives and VPs probably have skin in the game now and will support you, but will also add pressure. If that sells… well, the sky is the limit! Just got to keep executing and scaling…

But by now you’re probably itching to move onto your next great idea!

Good luck with all your innovations. Swim downstream and may the wind be at your back!