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Collisions, Collaboration and Community

For me, the recent MaRS Corporate Innovation Conference was a collision of corporate thinkers and startup leaders, the former striving to challenge their organizations and the latter exploring the disruption of these incumbents.

These two communities are typically separate from each other and are often portrayed at odds. The Verge conference was an opportunity for them to come together to learn, to explore hidden commonalities and problems, and to hear about the interesting work being done.

At the conference, the concept of collisions was explored by Matthew Luhn, a writer and former Pixar employee, in his talk “Inspiring and Sustaining Creativity in the Workplace”, which looked at the company culture at Pixar. While the teams at Pixar work in clusters around specific projects, they have a centrally located common space that brings employees from different projects together, creating the opportunity for staff to intentionally run into each other and to discuss their work.

These mandated “bump-into moments” enable employees to share their common experiences, offer solutions to mutual problems and develop new ways of exploring art and stories that would otherwise not have happened. Viewed through a macro lens, collisions like these ones, but between corporations and startups, would create opportunities to take both entities in exciting new directions.

I believe that, at its very core, this simple exposure can pave the way for a new kind of innovation: one that sees corporations deploy their resources to innovate with the speed and creativity of startups. Verge was about developing these new connections and, as I reflected on my experience, an obvious thought occurred to me: innovation is not a new concept.

This idea is apparent throughout history: in modern case studies such as Ford and the assembly line and micro mills versus large steel mills; in historical achievements from the advent of the printing press to the distribution of corporate shares; and even in classical history with the city of Rome demonstrating a breakthrough in organized and specialized society.

But if innovation is not new, why are large corporations suddenly so obsessed with it? There seem to be labs, accelerators and corridors every direction we turn.

These entities represent an evolved form of innovation resulting from the advantages and pressures of today’s socioeconomic environment. Rather than rolling over and admitting defeat to new ventures, established corporations are seeking ways to change and remain competitive. They are creating the conditions needed to explore the frontiers of their industries and are empowering their employees to take risks and fail.

This evolution is necessary because, now more than ever, it is imperative for corporations to succeed: for employees, who entrust their livelihoods to their employers’ success; for shareholders, who invest their money to build wealth; and for consumers, who rely on the goods and services produced in their everyday lives. In this climate, the destabilization of a large multinational corporation can send shockwaves through the global marketplace.

It follows, then, that corporations fundamentally fear being disrupted, and are now both willing and able to create real change for themselves. To control or impact the change is to stay relevant. Smart corporations are focusing on enabling innovation by being more rigorous in their innovation metrics and by seeking more collaborative opportunities.

In her talk on measuring innovation capacity, Angelique Mohring, the CEO of GainX, highlighted the critical need to track and measure innovation beyond an Excel spreadsheet. Scoring experiments by return on investment, brand impact and customer relevance helps to not only gauge a project’s success, but also to frame new projects correctly from the early days of ideation.

The idea of customer relevance in particular highlights an important concept for me: companies should base new projects on common problems rather than common interests. Tying this back to some Pixar wisdom, setting boundaries, objectives and deadlines often yields the best results.

Communities of like-minded teams and individuals with similar goals can come together to learn from each other, find ways to grow together, and co-create and sponsor innovations that impact and disrupt their own businesses and their broader industries.

New companies are even starting to emerge with a core value proposition of “co-creation.” In one particularly intriguing MaRS Minutes presentation, Ben Yoskovitz introduced the newly launched Highline Beta, a company that specializes in validating common corporate opportunities, creating minimum viable products with vetted founders and funding the outcome to get to market.

Events like the MaRS Corporate Innovation Conference facilitate collisions of communities and are tremendously important to economic innovation and societal growth. The conference gave corporate innovators and startup leaders the opportunity to share their struggles, learn about commonalities and embark on relationships of open collaboration.

Eric Fleming is on the Toronto Star’s strategy and innovation team working to find and launch new projects and partnerships. He most recently launched Headline Coffee, a subscription service that brings a new and freshly roasted bag of coffee to subscribers’ doors every month.

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