The biggest attitude problem we can have as innovators is to believe that we have an automatic license to be listened to; that we have legitimacy simply because companies are being disrupted.

“This alone doesn’t give you legitimacy… It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t” says Tendayi Viki, Author of “The Corporate Startup” and Associate Partner at Strategyzer.

But surely innovators exist to swashbuckle their way on the high seas of lean startup and agile, exploring their way from one distant desert island to another.

Because there are no one-size-fits-all playbooks for what we, as innovators, are doing right now. It means that when it comes to reaching new frontiers of understanding about the future, and creating uncharted ways of doing business, leaders need to give us a break. You just can’t measure our work in the way you would quantify the core business.

Pirates don’t play by the same rules as the rest: ‘I’d rather be a pirate than join the navy’, said Steve Jobs. Stand apart rather than join the crowd… right?

“The role of innovation is to help your company to last for a long time – or avoid disruption – by helping it to create new business models” Tendayi reminds us.

“There’s a whole assumption in our area of work that it doesn’t matter whether or not your company takes your innovative idea to scale, as long as you have those great ideas and learn something from them.

A pirate is an illegal entity, unattached to anything. They’re basically a criminal, and if anyone catches them – they’re dead.

Do we want executives to pull the plug on innovation when they find out that what we’re working on isn’t going to market, yielding new business models, and isn’t relatable to our core business? Do we want to flame out before our ideas can really make an impact?”

Innovators are struggling to bring their ideas into the real world – that is, integrate them with the core organization.

Tendayi’s talk “Pirates In The Navy” at Innov8rs Helsinki (also the title of his upcoming book) offers a candid crop of insights about how we as innovators can double down on our intrapreneur programs, impact the organizations we work for, and navigate our new business ideas to scale.

We’re Not Elon Musk

First, we need to truly check in on why we’re here in the first place. Do we have an authentic interest in creating new business models for our companies?

“Believe it or not, over 60% of innovators are not interested in this. They want to have idea competitions and hackathons and come up with a new business idea in 5 days which will add value for the company. Actually, what’s far more important is what happens after those 5 days.”

Sure, we’re not supposed to be getting cool with innovation, and it’s high time the curtain closed on innovation theater anyway. We know this. But even with the best intentions, Tendayi reflects on why there’s naturally an ongoing performance and a showy subculture around labs and lean startup:

“It’s not really like you’re an entrepreneur because you get a salary, your mortgage gets paid and if it doesn’t work out, you go back to the core business. The threat for entrepreneurs is existential – they lose a home. Yours is likely not.

It’s easy for us to fall into innovation theater because we don’t have it in our gut. What we really need is a change in our own mindset. We need to think about what we’re doing, and whether it actually matters.”

This means debunking a few myths, having some humility and spelling out some sharp home-truths: we’re not Elon Musk, and middle management might actually have a point when it seems like they’re stifling innovation – because you haven’t proven your legitimacy as an innovator – yet.

On this basis, learning skills around lean startup is not enough to make the cut; there needs to be a much more transformational process in play.

Once you are genuinely on board to help build new business models for your company, there’s a choice to be made on the kind of program you want to run:

  • Create new growth for your company
  • Transform the way your company works

The challenge of choosing here is three-fold:

  1. New growth doesn’t happen without transforming the way people work to some degree;
  2. Innovators driving new growth will often use this as a platform for culture change;
  3. Others will work purely on transformation but promise the company new growth.

Well-meaning promises are often made by innovators based on a misunderstanding of these two pillars, and their fundamental differences.

“And once you’ve made your choice, you’ll never be able to bring your ideas to scale if you don’t build a process that enables your company and leadership team to grow a business with you.”

What does that process look like?

Mapping Your Own Territory

Never mind jumping straight to product-market-fit – begin by taking a look at your own company. You can do this by asking yourself the following list of questions, to understand the lay of the land, and discover how innovation-ready your organization is:

  • Do you have the right level of leadership support?
  • Are these leaders giving you strategic guidance on what needs to be worked on?
  • Do you have the right portfolio management tools to develop, design and scale business models?
  • Do you have the organizational design needed to make this happen?
  • Does innovation have legitimacy and power, or is it the first thing to be cut when budgets are axed?
  • Who else is running growth-related programs in your organization? Do they complement, interrelate or overlap with yours?
  • Do you understand what failure looks like in your company?
  • Have you spoken to those who have failed before, to identify any potential landmines, and make sure you don’t fall into the same trap?

The core goal of this phase is to identify the early adopters in your organization who can be your innovation program ambassadors. Don’t ‘go big’ from day 1; first, identify people and channels where you can prove maximum value.

After all, even if Amazon and Facebook have done this before, and you have seen successes with your own work at startups – this is an entirely different landscape.

Conquering Early Wins With Early Adopters

Despite all the big-talk of strategy, short-termism is your friend here. With your ambassadors to fly the innovation flag with you, your goal is to get an early win and grow revenue at the end of the first year, so that you can prove to more leaders you are having an impact and gain legitimacy with a bigger decision-making unit.

When you get your early win, it’s time to celebrate like crazy. Make that early adopter leader famous so that others want to follow suit: publish blog posts, have parties, invite media, show the world their great work. Instead of running a political push campaign with product-market powerpoint slides, to corner people into thinking from your perspective, this is the time to create a magnetic field to attract everyone towards you through the provable quality of your work.

Catalyze Your Success By Conversing With Enablers

Then, don’t get distracted. You’re something of a rockstar now, but now is not the time to rock the boat. Leverage this early win and your newfound fame to create a repeatable process to build strategic space on the organizational chart for innovation, including for others who can help you – strategy, budgeting, or product.

By building around you, consider space for innovation on incentive structures, new tools, and spaces to collaborate.

This is all about gathering catalysts who will help you do the work – because you simply can’t do it solo.

Remember that you haven’t passed the early adopters on the adoption lifecycle yet – in fact, you’re crossing the chasm. The early majority need you to show them how it works.

Now is the time to create that Powerpoint deck to get an endorsement from the C-suite, create an innovation board who will handle all the incremental investments, and work with enablers like legal and compliance. Strategic enablers like these can help you map all the things which need to be addressed before a product can go to market, and in doing so forming a co-dependent community around innovation.

Be A Privateer, Not A Pirate

You’ve now become a legitimate part of how your company does business – and it’s time to scale to the late majority. If you’ve done it right, they will come to you, not the other way around.

So when innovation people call themselves ‘pirates’, it’s just not that simple.

“There’s a big difference between a pirate, and a privateer” explains Tendayi.

“Rather than running rogue without any buy-in like a pirate, a privateer has already been commissioned by a specific country to raid ships from enemy nations. Where pirates are working on the sidelines in secret, privateers are coming back to their country above board, with loot from raiding the enemy ships.

As such, they’re accepted back into their country and celebrated for working towards a common cause. From here, a privateer has earned the right to be an explorer… Coming back from expeditions to people who truly care about what they have found.”

It’s difficult to shake perceptions of corporate innovation as a pirate-like pursuit, but it’s a critical time to do so: those innovators who persistently journey solo towards their own island silo will have a high mortality rate.