That was the question we posed to a panel of experts at the Corporate Innovation Summit (CIS) in Lisbon on 4 November, a day-long gathering of Fortune 500 C-suite executives that forms part of Web Summit, the world’s largest tech conference. 

Our panellists – Fabio Riva, VP of legal and corporate affairs at Z-Tech, AB InBev’s tech-focused business transformation initiative; Susan Buttsworth, CEO of CK Hutchison Innovations Opportunities Development; and Vasile Tiple, deputy general counsel at UiPath, a New York-headquartered unicorn that develops robotic process automation software – revealed some fascinating insights into how their businesses approach the innovation challenge. 

These are some of the highlights.

To innovate within a large corporation, create a unit with a difference…

Big businesses need layers of governance and often complex chains of approval to move forward as one. But those structures can act as a barrier to innovation. 

Our panellists discussed how they have built internal ‘start-up’ units to overcome this challenge, working in lean, agile teams that make decisions quickly. In one case, they even adopted different incentive structures that reward innovative behaviours and can help attract new talent. 

Another described how their business has created a culture of innovation by giving colleagues easy access to key decision-makers (‘because you don’t know where the next great idea will come from’).

… but ensure you maintain a strong connection to HQ

Our panellists talked about how their innovation hubs are led by – and report into – senior individuals within the main business.

 This helps to increase visibility at board level, drive uptake of new products and services, and ensure strategic alignment. 

Know your ‘customer’…

Successful innovation is about addressing someone else’s pain point. 

One panellist explained how their team conducts sophisticated surveys to understand these challenges at a market level before any project begins. 

Another described developing innovative processes for internal colleagues using customer-facing tools in order to make adoption as easy as possible. 

They also talked about ‘democratising’ their software API to enable their customers to play a role in driving the business forward.

… and know when to collaborate

Collaboration was a common theme. 

One expert explained how their company builds solutions internally where it can produce the best result (for example if its customer knowledge is key to the final product or service), but also works with third parties to get to market faster (‘if they share our cultural outlook’). 

Trying to do too much internally may necessitate hiring more people, which in turn can put start-up structures at risk.

Tech deals are different…

Our panellists talked about how their companies use M&A to drive innovation. 

One described how tech deals require a degree of internal education to ensure key decision-makers understand they are there to lay a foundation for the future rather than to drive immediate revenue uplift. 

IP and data due diligence are a key consideration, which means legal counsel need to be involved from the early stages. This was of course music to our ears as digital lawyers…! 

… and regulation is a big challenge

Another area where legal and business need to be aligned is in relation to regulation. 

One of our experts has an express remit to innovate with data, and explained how they were only able to ‘unleash’ their innovative potential once they engaged with lawyers to understand how to operate within the boundaries of GDPR. 

Another described the challenge of helping colleagues to understand the regulatory frameworks that apply to their work, and positioning legal as an enabler of (sustainable) innovation rather than a blocker. 

Getting legal involved from the start ‘can dramatically increase your speed to market’.