When given a growth or expansion mandate, it’s becoming common for corporates to dive in and ‘do an accelerator’ or ‘bring in an agile coach’. But should walk before they try to run?

The starting points for new growth or transformation teams vary from organisation to organisation. The underlying thread I’ve observed is generally some sort of mandate from the executive to a leader or team to find new growth beyond business as usual.

We often see, as a very early stage in this process, two ideas emerging very quickly. Firstly, they wish to bring in ‘Agile Coaches’ to make them faster. Secondly, many will start an accelerator as a means of leveraging start-ups to find new growth, using an agency or partner who is conversant with them or possesses some kind of ‘ecosystem’.

Let’s tackle the broader issue of ‘management fads’ in a different blog. Make no mistake, running an accelerator or bringing in an agile coach is a management fad. But let’s dig deeper into the ‘why’ versus the ‘what’.

Why, if the primary reason for innovation failure is a failure to solve a meaningful consumer problem with a market-advantageous solution, is the first port of call to bring in a coach to help you run faster? If anything, wouldn’t logic suggest that corporates could possibly benefit from going slower and building better things? From my experiences, going slower is no poorer an idea than racing sensational failures to market much quicker. The question being posed here is why going fast, above all things, was the first problem to solve.

In terms of accelerators, I’d pose the same question. Why?

Establishing a corporate accelerator will broadly provide an opportunity to have your hand held whilst poking an unfamiliar dimension of commerciality (start-ups) with a stick. If your team lacks the requisite capabilities or confidence to find and engage in conversation with a business smaller than your own, it’s possible that it’s money well spent. Again though, if that’s the most important problem you’re facing.

In a corporate accelerator, a mutual friend (the agency) will curate and arrange an introduction between you and a start-up. They’ll coach you both on making the engagement productive – potentially encouraging a pilot of some capacity inside your organisation, and generally seeing if sparks fly. For the corporate, it also provides decent PR fodder (the dreaded ‘Innovation Theatre’ at worst, or some sparks of progress and learning at best). In some cases, successful pilots between the corporate and the start-up can lead to commercial agreements between them, or a capital investment (if that mechanism is set up inside the corporate).

I’ve spent years understanding Lean Innovation, Agile, Traditional Stage-Gate, Design Thinking and so on. I’ve also run corporate accelerators from both an external (real start-ups) and internal (new ventures) perspective, as well as operating as a partner on a corporate venture capital fund. Broadly, my opinion could not be any stronger against an under-developed, fledgling corporate venture group engaging with an external start-up accelerator or doing Agile.

Had that corporate invested that same time and capital into its internal structures and people capability it would be years ahead. By internal structures, I refer to the establishment of a venture fund, a new governance model, the recruitment of more relevant external talent (or intensive redevelopment of existing talent). I refer to the operating system and financing processes used within the growth team. I refer to the robust development of strategic platforms, swim lanes between the growth team and core organisation, or the executive alignment of the true purpose and mandate of the group, and its measurement metrics.

A great analogy I learned from a Canadian colleague is that which says you need to learn to skate before you can think of playing ice hockey. The internal strategy development, operations, design and capability building of your growth machine is learning to skate. Leaping into a corporate accelerator is like prioritising trick shots and buying new gear. Sure, at some point you’ll need them – but if you feel that’s more important than learning to skate something suggests to me that you may not entirely get it (yet).

[‘Experience’ blogs are reflections and learning experiences from Radiocarbon consultants from their time on the client-side]