Corporate venture studios offer innovation teams the freedom to operate with the spirit, passion, and resilience of entrepreneurs, all while leveraging organizational resources.

However, building successful innovation teams in this context requires careful consideration. What are the key ingredients?

During our recent Innov8rs Learning Lab on Culture, Talent & Teams, Kimberly Skelton (Accenture Song Sr. Entrepreneur-in-Residence) and Hillary Balma (Director at G-Works Venture Studio at General Mills), shared guiding principles and lessons learned in building strong teams of corporate entrepreneurs.

Here are the key takeaways from their talk.

Team Building In A Corporate Venture Studio: Lessons Learned At G-Works

G-Works is General Mills ‘internal venture studio where high-performing innovation teams – also called co-founder teams – combine their talent with deep market research and agile experimentation to bring new ideas to life. G-Works sits within the Disruptive Growth arm and is intentionally separate from the core business to give innovation teams the freedom to operate as startups in new and incremental spaces for General Mills. The growth board, comprising senior executives with a VC mindset, invests in the teams and decides whether to continue or stop a project at various stages in the innovation funnel.

At a macro level, G-Works’ innovation funnel consists of three phases: discovery, validation, and building. Any team first works to discover an unmet consumer problem (within the food spaces, in the case of General Mills). They then validate potential solutions and business models to solve those identified problems and eventually build a business. As they move through the funnel, teams present their latest evidence to the growth board and seek approval (and funding) to continue building their businesses.

What distinguishes a high-performing innovation team within venture studios? Next, we’ll examine some best practices and lessons learned for building robust internal innovation teams that you can implement in this unique setting.

1. Mixing Internal and External Talents

Innovation teams benefit from a mix of internal and external talents. On their side, internal team members bring a deep understanding of the company's culture, history, and operations. They have experience working within the organization and understand the internal processes and systems. On the other hand, external team members bring fresh perspectives, new ideas, and diverse experiences from other industries or backgrounds. Combining these different skill sets, experiences, and perspectives results in a more holistic and innovative approach to problem-solving, which can even lead to more creative solutions and better outcomes.

Co-founder teams consist of three members, each bringing complementary skills to the table. Two members are selected from different areas of the company, typically a technical co-founder (a food scientist) and a consumer insights co-founder. The third co-founder, the commercial lead, is typically an external hire. Internal co-founders are expected to have prior experience in innovation and demonstrated entrepreneurial behavior, while external co-founders are ideally founders themselves or have early-stage startup experience. This approach ensures that a diverse range of perspectives and experiences are represented within each team.

2. Identifying Specific Entrepreneurial Skills

In the team member selection process, Hillary emphasizes the significance of attracting internal and external individuals who have a passion for solving problems in the area where your consumers exist. Instead of solely considering their track record of results and unique skills and experiences, which can be uncovered through the interview process later on, it's crucial to identify whether they demonstrate entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviors.

A strong innovation team should be agile, comfortable navigating uncertainty, and able to pivot quickly and efficiently. As such, the necessary skills for a high-performing team are varied. According to Hillary, the most vital quality to look for in potential team members is their inclination towards collaboration and being a team player.

“Bring onboard folks who are highly collaborative, who build trust easily, and who are willing to prioritize the team's success over their individual success”.

It’s also important to seek out individuals who are avid learners, insatiably curious, willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, humble enough to recognize they’re never done learning, and able to acknowledge their mistakes. They must be tenacious and have an innate drive to solve consumer problems and make a positive impact on their lives. They have to be agile, comfortable navigating uncertainty, and able to pivot quickly and efficiently. Lastly, they have to be resilient through change and failure.

3. Building a “Team Player” Culture

As an innovation leader, it is crucial to reinforce a team player mindset and build a "Team Player" culture across your organization. At General Mills, this is emphasized from the very beginning of the innovation journey, according to Kimberly. They dedicate a significant amount of time to this, including a full week of team onboarding, with activities like simulations and team-building games to help the team get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. By the end of the week, the teams create a team charter, a written document that outlines the purpose, goals, roles, and responsibilities of the team. This serves as a blueprint for the team's operations, providing a framework for decision-making and problem-solving and ensuring that the team is consistently aligned toward shared goals.

4. Celebrating Failures and Killed Decisions

Celebrating failures and killed decisions is just as important as acknowledging successes. When teams are only recognized for their successes, they may become hesitant to take on new challenges or projects with a higher risk of failure. In contrast, celebrating failures and killed decisions promotes a culture of risk-taking, exploration of new opportunities, learning, and iteration.

“Celebrate failed decisions and killed projects with the same enthusiasm as you celebrate successful ones. This encourages a culture of risk-taking where teams are not afraid to try new things, even if they may not always succeed”.

Celebrating failures and killed decisions creates a positive and supportive environment that values employee growth and development, regardless of the outcome. This approach promotes transparency and accountability, enabling teams to learn from their mistakes and apply those learnings to future projects.

5. Providing Supplemental Skills and Perspectives

Lastly, it is crucial not to overlook the development of an ecosystem or extended team to provide additional skills and perspectives to support your innovation teams. As the senior Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Kimberly emphasizes the significance of having a network of experts who can guide and coach innovation teams during the validation and building phases. For instance, they can provide valuable insights on gathering consumer evidence, running digital experiments, project management, and de-risking the business along the journey.

In Summary

Building successful innovation teams in a corporate venture studio context requires careful consideration. Mixing internal and external talents, identifying specific entrepreneurial skills, building a "team player" culture, and celebrating failures and killed decisions are the key ingredients.

These principles have been effectively implemented at G-Works, General Mills' internal venture studio, to build high-performing innovation teams that operate with the grit, passion, and resilience of entrepreneurs while leveraging organizational resources. By implementing these best practices, corporate innovators can create strong innovation teams of corporate entrepreneurs who know how to navigate the organization, understand customer needs, and make objective decisions based on evidence.