There's no one-size-fits-all approach to successful innovation, but we can draw lessons from how other companies have organized their efforts.

At a recent Innov8s Connect event, innovation and growth advisor Rachel Gordon sat down with Puja Samuel and Linda Elkins to discuss what makes innovation, and in particular incubation efforts, successful.

Puja leads the ideation practice for JP Morgan’s corporate investment bank. JP Morgan focuses on providing clients with strategic advice, capital raising advice, risk management, and extending liquidity and markets around the world. Linda is an Innovation Executive and Technical Leader at Gore Innovation Center. W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. is a multinational manufacturing company specializing in fluoropolymer products She explores new opportunities for Gore through external collaboration.

Here's a summary of the conversation they had.

What's the Structure of Your Innovation Center?

Linda: The innovation center started in 2015, and took about two years to set up the physical space and create the team. We did a significant amount of research on what other innovation centers were doing as well as what the leadership wanted the impact of the innovation center to be. What we learned over the first three years is that it's challenging to be an outpost. It was much easier to innovate when aligned with a common goal. We pivoted from trying to be a resource to the entire organization to instead driving technology in a focused area. We want to understand a white space, an area that Gore isn't in, and leverage partners and technology to see if there is a business opportunity there.

Puja: We started AreaX in 2018 with the thought of how to accelerate product delivery. So it started by establishing the execution path first. Then we brought in the talent who could focus on the incubation piece and follow through on the execution. Now we have an end-to-end operation that can do everything from idea sourcing to idea execution and delivery.

Would You Say Your Current Model Is Ideal or Is There Room for Improvement?

Puja: We're very closely aligned to the business unit, but we're not a part of it. That's a positive for our specific targets because the model is optimized to handle adjacent things. We focus on something we can bring to market today rather than a moonshot. To get traction beyond the initial stage of incubation, it's important that we drive things that are usable today or tomorrow. When innovations are moonshot-focused, it's harder for a business to wrap its hands around them.

Linda: We started where we looked to engage with each of the business divisions, but it proved to be a challenging model. That has to do with the structure of the organization, and Gore is known for its lattice organizational structure. That means there is no strong top-down pull for the division leader to work with the innovation center. What worked better for us was to look for new opportunities instead of acting as a service.

How Do You Decide What to Start Working On?

Puja: It's both a proactive and reactive process. If people come in with ideas, we'll go through layers of vetting to decide if it has potential. If it does, we'll shape it and pitch it to the investors. That's the stage-gate to proceed to further incubation. Proactively, we attack the white space to look for ideas and areas of opportunity. We might go to the business areas and have discovery sessions with them where we proactively ideate for areas to target.

Linda: We use the lean cohort process, so we do an eight-week sprint where we do a lot of discovery work. For example, we might want to understand an opportunity in bio-pesticides. So we go through an eight-week sprint to look at the market, what the opportunity is, and what technology we have that we can leverage. We come up with an idea and then move it through that process.

How Do You Measure the Impact You're Having?

Linda: We've evolved our metrics over the last three years, and we've arrived at six. Five of them are volume metrics, looking at things like how many events we had or how many prototypes we made in the lab. Then we have a series of metrics about how many ideas we brought in, how many were assessed, and how many were adopted by a division. The adoption metric is the key metric. We could look at 5,000 startups but if they aren't generating output, there is no value-add for the business. So the volume-based metrics show how we spend our time, but we are really trying to get to those impact metrics.

Puja: We track engagement, depth of reach, and how many ideas flow into the system. We have those metrics for the overall ideation program. When we get down to the product level, though, the KPIs become more bespoke based on what we're developing. Those metrics might be user adoption, user engagement, how many people we onboarded, or how much repeat client interest there was. When we meet those stages of success, we know we want to put more funding into it. If we don't meet those metrics, then it's time to either recalibrate or kill it.

What's the Biggest Lesson You've Learned on This Journey?

Linda: Gore has about 10,000 associates worldwide. One group of five can have a huge impact, but we can't change the way Gore operates as an organization. If we align with that idea, we'll be more effective and have better outcomes. We have to adapt, and we need to know how to influence our area and how to bring in the new technology that will make a difference.

Puja: There are so many models for innovation, and what's going to work for your organization is unique. There are parts and pieces of the innovation system that work across the board, but there is a uniqueness about how it works for you. You need to have flexibility in the program, so you can change depending on what the business needs. If you want to survive, continue to reinvent the system and your structure as the organization evolves.

Finally... If You Had a Magic Wand, What Would You Change?

For the best and latest on everything "incubation" and to have conversations like this with other cross-industry innovation leaders, join our upcoming Innov8rs Connect on Foresight & Business Design (26-28 October), and on Venture Building & Scaling (2-4 November).