Asking the Tough Questions: Is Your Company ‘Startup-Ready’?

By May 24, 2019December 22nd, 2020No Comments

For the last 34 months working as an innovation consultant at Pioneers Discover (that’s our team above!), I’ve run 25 projects for a variety of clients across the world. They’ve ranged from Fortune 500 companies and multinationals to investment funds and state-owned organizations.

No two innovation programs are the same, but if there’s one thing that always applies, it’s the truth that the client needs to be ready to innovate! That might sound vague, but in fact, there’s a checklist we work through in order to see if they’re prepared for the brave new world of startup collaborations, internal innovation programs or both.

The checklist is broken down into strategic questions, cultural questions and process-related questions. Here’s a general idea how it looks, along with some real-life examples that might help you answer them for your own company!

Strategic Questions

  • How did you run innovation in the past?
  • Is there already a team in place that works on radical / Horizon 3 innovation topics?
  • What are the KPI’s and how do you measure success in the innovation space?
  • How much budget is dedicated to work on radical / Horizon 3 innovation projects and for what timespan?
  • Is the top management on board and supporting innovation in every possible form?

Our main goal here is to find out if the organization uses the right metrics to measure success and how well-integrated innovation is with its core business. We really don’t want to support isolated initiatives with simple short-term ROI potential where there is no link between corporate and innovation strategy.

We’ve seen examples of corporates that just take projects that simply happen to be of current personal importance for certain department managers. There are situations where such managers move the topic into innovation programs just so they can use up allocated budget and resources. You rather need to start by getting executives on board and asking ‘Why are we doing this?’ From there you can make a reasoned decision about which field or topics are relevant to your goal.

One good way to answer these questions is the kind of innovation assessment we did with a leading oil & gas company in the CEE region. After no more than a two-day workshop, they had already defined four major areas ripe for innovation. The mix of people was important in achieving this outcome: the workshop involved not only top management but carefully-selected innovation or digital officers from their national offices all over Europe. They also invited people whose job wasn’t specifically innovation (such as retail executives), because these people are the ones who really know what problems need to be solved in order to stay competitive.

Cultural questions

  • Is the culture of the organization ready to work on innovation projects, including collaboration with external innovators, in a lean and hypothesis-driven customer feedback process?
  • Did the organization already establish lean innovation processes and a positive culture of failure?
  • Is support from the Business Units available even though there might be other more pressing challenges or issues?
  • Does the organization focus primarily on short-term challenges and problems or does everyone up to top management understand that thinking long term (5-10 years) is necessary?
  • Are product owners of innovation topics ready to work around 20% of their time on innovation projects?

Here we’re trying to find out if the organizational culture is ready for innovation even when there are more pressing issues for line managers and potential product owners. It’s important to understand if the innovation team has full support from C-Suite.

Our ongoing work with Wien Energie on their Innovation Challenge showed just how directly the board should be prepared to be involved – their CEO actually joined the jury to judge startup pitches. In another smart move to grow the right culture, the Viennese energy utility identified a network of ‘Innovation Scouts’ within the company who had the right mindset and understand what innovation is all about. While innovation wasn’t their ‘day job’, they were encouraged to look for opportunities and to be ready to work on innovation topics.

Another of our major multinational mobility clients fostered an internal culture of innovation by creating an internal innovation hub for people to work on new, promising and creative ideas in an environment removed from the main headquarters. They had dedicated budgets to pursue projects for up to eight weeks, with help from mentors and exchanges with people from the startup world. They also had a clear understanding that there would be potential to execute the idea – with a team and resources – if the board liked their initial concept pitch.

A concept like that shapes the environment for innovation and allows employees the freedom they need. In this environment, it is understood that some ideas make it and some don’t – and this culture of failure is critical for any broader innovation projects.

Process-related questions

  • Are lean legal and procurement processes in place?
  • Are IT, data and back-end systems available for startups or external parties to access?
  • Have you set up processes or structures that are a fit to the startup mentality and a lean product development?
  • Have you simplified bureaucracy specifically for your innovation program, so that it doesn’t stall?

These questions are particularly important if you’re considering working with startups. The important thing to find out here is if the organization can integrate startups and other external (or even internal) innovators quickly and without too much bureaucracy. Innovation is all about speed, so you can’t waste time waiting for the next steering committee or prolonged procurement processes!

This is fairly basic execution stuff that really should be simple – but in a large corporation, it isn’t always so. We’ve seen first-hand how things can go wrong if processes aren’t as slick as they should be. In a recent client project, with a bootcamp completed and a startup ready to begin collaboration with clear deliverables, the client took almost three months to sign the agreement with the startup. This was absolutely nothing but basic paperwork – and the kind of thing that should never slow down innovation. In this case, just drawing up sample agreements up front could have been enough to avoid that wasted time.


If you don’t have positive answers or clear plans as responses to these questions, then it’s too early to launch an actual innovation program – especially if you’re considering working with startups. Spending a little time and resources on answering these questions up front will save a lot of time and resources – and quite possibly awkward situations – later on! It will also ensure the best possible outcomes for you. The good news is that you don’t have to answer those questions all on your own – talk to us!

Looking for specialist help to get your company startup-ready? Then reach out to Pioneers Discover via