What The Top 5 Innovation Executives Can Teach Us

The world’s largest corporations in virtually every industry recognize the threat posed by nimble and innovative software companies hungry for market share. No one wants to be the next Kodak or Blockbuster, but it isn’t always obvious how to avoid such a fate. Five corporate innovation leaders share how they’re shifting strategies and processes to enable their organizations to continuously innovate in modern times. Thanks to leaders at MasterCard, Ford, BBVA, Barclays, and Marriott for sharing insight into innovation initiatives.

1. Begin with a customer-focused mission

Upstarts like Uber and Tesla are challenging existing business models in the automotive industry and redefining how consumers get from A to B. To stay ahead of the curve, the Ford Motor Company is embracing its roots.

Despite having spent the last century selling cars and trucks, the organization now thinks about its business more holistically. “It’s about providing personal mobility and really doing so in an affordable manner,” Venkatesh Prasad, Senior Technology Leader shared.

Cars may have replaced the horse and buggy, but Ford innovates not by continuing to engineer cars but by enabling customers to travel. They’ve re framed their product narrative around the consumer’s entire travel experience. This enables the company to remain relevant even amidst rapidly-evolving market changes.

Similarly, John Sheldon, SVP and Group Head of Innovation Management at MasterCard, explained how his team’s goal is to “kill cash.” By shifting the mission from developing credit cards to facilitating payments, MasterCard, a company that’s put over 2.2 billion credit cards in people’s hands, has been able to innovate around the entire customer experience.

2. Innovation needs a safe space

“Move fast and break things.” That’s been the mantra of Silicon Valley for quite some time. The reason why “breaking things” is encouraged is because while most ideas will turn out not to be viable, experimentation and the learning that comes from it is critical to ultimately achieving successes.

However, “breaking things” isn’t so easy inside of companies with brands that are synonymous with quality and reliability, and where employees are incentivized to keep things working rather than reinvent them altogether.

As Sheldon sensibly explained, “Nobody wants their payments network to be doing some of the things that innovation is all about — moving fast, breaking things, taking things on the market, taking them off, pivoting.”

That’s why MasterCard gives their innovation initiatives some room to breathe. “That separation protects the ideas in their nascent stage from the 800 pound gorilla that is the wonderful business model that we have.”

Matthew Von Ertfelda, Vice President and Global Team Lead of Marriott’s Insight, Strategy, and Innovation Team, explained his organization’s approach to protecting potentially groundbreaking ideas. “The innovation lab is a physical space — it’s something we call The Underground,” he revealed. “It’s on the 2nd floor subterranean areas of Marriott International, here in Bethesda. It’s a space where we can safely ideate, design, prototype and build out provocative, bold new innovations.”

3. Corporate innovation strategies evolve over time

Every Fortune 500 company was once an innovative startup. However, over time, innovation becomes less of a priority and execution and profit maximization becomes the central focus. For multi-billion dollar companies, recovering their entrepreneurial roots is not so simple. In addition, the biggest opportunities to take time to be realized.

That’s why companies often take a long-term view — but get started with smaller experiments in the meantime.

Matthew Hooper, VP of Open Innovation at Barclays, matches internal stakeholders with external innovators who can partner to solve overlapping problems.

As corporations learn best practices and capture market data, the strategies evolve.

Scarlett Sieber, SVP of New Digital Businesses at BBVA, began by bringing the innovation community to her organization, but now focuses on incubating new ideas from within. BBVA has also started a corporate venture capital arm and a digital M&A team.

As the strategies evolve, the desired outcomes evolve in parallel — from aspirational research to actually impacting the bottom line.

When MasterCard’s innovation lab started, CEO, Ajay Banga, notably exclaimed;

If you don’t give me stuff to launch, I’ll fire you all.”

His focus was always on balancing the exploration of cool new technologies with actually increasing MasterCard’s share price.

4. Culture is key

One such longer-term goal that companies often have is to spread the culture of innovation from the safe space throughout the organization. That way, it’s not just an innovation team, but the organization as a whole that’s adapting to changing customer needs and iterating accordingly.

Von Ertfelda described his approach and the corresponding success he’s had.

“Our team is really an accelerator, incubator and a catalyst for change throughout the company,” he explained.

“When we started, we were the first discipline and really the only discipline that had innovation as its charge. And today, five years later, innovation is a shared charge throughout the organization. The spirit and philosophy, the processes, the tools and the tenants of innovation that underpin The Underground have been adopted and implemented globally.

5. Experimentation is the not-so-secret weapon

For Scarlett Sieber and BBVA, innovation methodologies begin with figuring out ways to creatively learn without putting the brand at risk. She acknowledged that experimentation is a foreign notion to many large organizations, which have long been focused on scale and execution, rewarding employees for being right rather than for learning.

She wasn’t the only one who shared such sentiment. Large corporations are increasingly examining practices most commonly associated with scrappy startups — from customer interviews to minimum viable products. But instead of blindly adopting such practices, they’re focused on adapting them to fit within a corporate environment. Such methodologies have the potential to enable innovation teams to test their ideas in a time and cost effective manner and ultimately find the ideas most capable of putting their organizations at the peak of innovation in their industries.

Reference: Mike Fishbein’s “What I Learned Interviewing Innovation Executives at 5 of The World’s Largest Corporations

Related Posts

The Importance of Compassion in the Workplace

The Importance of Compassion in the Workplace

BENCHMARK YOUR LEADERSHIP. IMMEDIATE RESULTS. Find out how your leadership and teams stack up against best of breed Future Fit characteristicsSUMMARY"Now more than ever before, we're needing to build trust with one another and create strong relationships within our...

How important is trust in teams?

How important is trust in teams?

BENCHMARK YOUR LEADERSHIP. IMMEDIATE RESULTS. Find out how your leadership and teams stack up against best of breed Future Fit characteristicsSUMMARYInterview series with Tom Dawson-Squibb - Part 1 Tom talks about the importance of psychological safety in the building...

Shifting Remote Workers from Survive to Thrive mode

Shifting Remote Workers from Survive to Thrive mode

BENCHMARK YOUR LEADERSHIP. IMMEDIATE RESULTS. Find out how your leadership and teams stack up against best of breed Future Fit characteristics SUMMARYWhile the immediate health benefits of avoiding common workspaces are obvious in the face of a frightening pandemic,...

Becoming Future Fit

Becoming Future Fit

BENCHMARK YOUR LEADERSHIP. IMMEDIATE RESULTS. Find out how your leadership and teams stack up against best of breed Future Fit characteristics SUMMARYIn an interview with Caley Africa, Mike explains what being Future Fit is and talks to a handful of the 10 key actions...

Want to know more about building a Future Fit Leadership team in your organisation?

Leave your details and we’ll be in touch.


For over 15 years, WWC has helped organisations realise their potential through culture, leadership and technology.

Smart, digitally mature companies listen to us. Shouldn’t you be speaking to us too?

Share This