Navigating the Challenges of Corporate Prototyping and Experimentation

Alex Schuh
Here are six things to consider when experimenting with new ideas or validating problems within a corporate setting. Innovation Manager Alex Schuh reflects on his personal experience and shares his insights.

I had an eye-opening moment speaking about prototyping as part of the YEW 2021. I talked the students through a recent validation experiment from one of my clients. We wanted to find out if people would be interested in a luggage handling service for their travel solution, similar to what we are used to when flying. I thought it was a well-suited example of how experiments are set up when validating a potential solution to a customer’s problem. Still, I have to admit the questions from the audience surprised me. A lot!

“Why don’t you just throw peoples’ suitcases in the same vehicle the passengers are in and take them where they need to go?” – one student asked. That is a very legitimate question. I answered immediately and out of reflex: “It is not that easy. The legal department intervened to tell us we can’t do that due to safety issues.”

I further explained that we wanted to do a “fake door test” to see if there was any demand for this solution but had to scrap that too. Legal says one is not allowed to sell something that does not exist. “We can’t lie to our customers”, they claimed.

While I was very aware of those setbacks at the time they happened and also knew where they came from, it was at this moment that I realized: Prototyping does not equal prototyping, and experiments in a corporate context are not the same as for startups. Startups mostly go with the – do it first, apologize later – attitude. In short, they would just not care about those things. Rightfully so? Famous cases like Theranos also showed us that this attitude could backfire. So one always has to consider the potential risks that come with experimentation.

I very much share the mindset of startups, but I quickly noticed that intrapreneurs, on the other hand, were influenced by what people within their organization told them not to do. The initial drive and eagerness to explore suddenly vanished, and frustration appeared.

After reflecting on the differences between the settings of experiments and my experiences in both fields, I came up with six things to consider when experimenting with new ideas or validating problems within a corporate setting:

1. Never lose the mindset

The right mindset and resilience are key to staying motivated in a corporate setting. It is all about the rebellious attitude that one should never lose. Don’t let yourself get infected by the “that’s not possible” mindset, and rather try to find ways to keep you motivated. Exchanges with people who are facing similar situations can be very helpful.

2. Start earlier, start smaller

Because you will encounter many internal hurdles and making innovation successful in a complex corporate environment poses very different challenges than founding a startup, you should start experiments even earlier and set the scope even smaller than a startup would do. This is why it is important to bring up as many question marks and discover as many pitfalls to navigate around as possible. Why? Because in the end, experiments will most likely turn out to be bigger and more complex than you expected initially.

3. Consider your stakeholders

In a corporate setting, one must consider many peoples’ interests. Plan in enough time to involve each and every one of them. Some might like to be involved, others just informed. Talk to the relevant people early on to identify blockers, bottlenecks and pitfalls before they become a problem. Once you are aware of all people involved and their interests, try to make plans to manoeuvre around the blockers. If you want a clearer picture of your surroundings, you might find this article relevant.

4. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Intrapreneurs tend to respect the advice from managers, especially in legal departments. Don’t get me wrong; they have a point when they raise concerns about your experiments. First, it is their job, and second, it is always easier to say no. I encourage you to try to find ways around the no or even to do it still if you feel you can weigh the risk. Always ask yourself: “What is the worst that can happen?”. Is it worth it to piss off four potential clients out of 200 to prove a critical hypothesis and significantly reduce the risk of your endeavour? Most likely. Will one of them sue the hell out of your company because of that? Probably not. So do it if the results are worth the risk, but always consider how to explain your experiment to participants once over.

5. Put one person in charge

Things can be messy when you are conducting experiments. Due to pressure from other departments, you will find your experiment downplayed or “softened” after a while of planning and exchanging with others. Therefore, you must put one person in charge of challenging if the experiment still makes sense the way it will most likely be executed. This person always asks: “If we do the experiment as planned, will we be happy and confident with the outcome? Is this enough, or just a compromise?” By making one person responsible, you make sure that you don’t just do it for the sake of checking the “we asked customers” or the “we experimented” box. This happens easier than you would think!

6. Have a partner in crime

As a corporate, having an agency on your side to do the things that are usually “off-limits” within the organization can greatly help. If you are not allowed to offer something that does not exist due to corporate regulations, let them do it. If you can’t quickly host landing pages, let them do it. Only constraint: The experiment must not be associated with the corporate. This, in most cases, is a possible adjustment to the experiment without altering the outcome.

To leverage not only the autonomy of a partner but also the skills, we are increasingly engaging in Venture Building projects with our clients. With shared risk and shared responsibility, we are creating new products, even entirely new businesses, together with them. If this interests you, check out our latest venture, ADD TO WATER, and feel free to contact us and exchange!

Whether you are Intrapreneur, Innovation Manager, CEO or startup founder, I would love to hear your opinion and past experience. Do you want to add points to the list or argue against them? Let us know! If you are part of a legal department and made it that far, I would love to exchange.

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