Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
    leancanvas_adapted
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. 😉

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

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Preston builds apps that shape Comcast's next generation mobile and TV experiences at its Silicon Valley Innovation Center.

Former GM of Plaxo.com (acquired by Comcast), User Experience Design leader at eBay, Microsoft PM. MBA from UC Berkeley.

Danville Dad of Three.