How to defeat corporate antibody syndrome

Launched in 2013 Hive enables you to control your heating and other useful devices from your phone. However, the UK’s most popular smart thermostat isn’t an innovation from a new tech start-up, it was developed from within British Gas.

Adrian Heesom was involved from the beginning of Hive. He shared some of his learning about innovating from within a big corporation.

“My experience is that most corporates have lots of ideas but executing them is the problem.”

British Gas had two failed attempts before Hive evolved to be the success it is today. Hive started out based within the main IT team. Whilst it stood alone as a separate project team, its proximity to the ‘mothership’ (as Adrian calls it) meant that it fell victim to what he calls, “Corporate Antibody Syndrome”. Managers from all over the organisation wanted to get involved, have their say and sign off on things. The innovation became stifled and the predecessor to Hive ground to a halt.

Adrian got involved in Hive because he ran the post investment review about why it failed. And when the second attempt failed after Corporate Antibodies infected the enthusiasm and stole time once more it became a catalyst to testing a different approach.

British Gas sought external advice, which was to separate Hive innovation from the mothership, in terms of location, governance and people, giving time and space to focus on innovation with no interruptions.

Kassir Hussain a project manager with a background in telecoms and innovation was bought in to lead the development of the third Hive attempt. He created an incubator and asked for some conditions.

  • Hive to be set up in central London, with access to the best developers, project managers and data scientists.
  • Two years of investment with no ties.
  • To own the HR process and have authority on who was hired and fired.
  • Hives’ own brand; Kassir knew that it was unlikely that anyone was going to buy a piece of the latest tech from the, albeit trusted, but traditional British Gas brand.
  • Two team members from the existing British Gas core team; a finance director, and a change manager were appointed to ‘fend off the wolves’

The Hive team structure emulated a start-up – the core team were entrepreneurs and their entrepreneurial spirit permeated through the rest of the team. They failed fast and learned. They focused on the unique customer insight that led to the initial Hive concept as well as the changing needs of their customer. They concentrated on the customer before the technology.

“Making the initial idea happen is really hard, but holding onto the idea and evolving it as customers’ need it to evolve is even harder”

Leadership is clearing the stage so the team can perform

The leadership and culture at Hive was a big departure from the structure of the mothership. At Hive leadership was no longer top-down and about telling people what to do, but to clear the path and let the experts do their job. It was also about keeping people aligned and focused on the core purpose. There was a shift from following a corporate five-year plan to focusing on a five-year vision and delivering a three-month plan that adapted to the changing customer needs and the learning along the way.

The benefit of the mothership was a ready-made route to market and in the case of Hive this was 10,000 trusted engineers who were good at fitting thermostats. Every engineer was given a Hive thermostat of their own to play with and try for themselves in their own homes. They were also involved in the design process. Because they liked the product and felt a sense of ownership they became an army of advocates and the best sales people Hive could have asked for.

Adrian has recently moved on from Hive to another corporate grown start-up – Now TV at Sky. For Hive to continue to succeed and grow he suggests it must stick to the three principles that made it successful in the first place: frictionless user experience, beautiful industrial design and constant customer feedback.

Adrian’s 7 innovation tips

  • Beware of Corporate Antibody Syndrome – make time and space.
  • Listen to your consumers and test and learn as fast as you can afford
  • Any innovation starts with failure – embrace failure.
  • Fail quickly, learn and crack on – the people who are good fail fastest.
  • Create an incubator – don’t establish something that is governed in the same way as the mothership.
  • Don’t forget your corporate strengths – for Hive it was the British Gas engineers on the ground.
  • As the business grows don’t lose sight of the entrepreneurial spirit that made it successful in the first place.

If you’d like to learn more insights from other successful innovators check out the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today. 

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