The Power of Undercover Innovation Projects


Recently I chaired a European innovation conference. The participants were mainly global players in the automotive industry, chemical industry, mechanical engineering  or electrical engineering industry. I asked all participants to tell me how one of their company’s most valuable business sector started at the very beginning as an innovation.

The result looks surprising: approximately 50% of their today’s successful businesses started as undercover innovation projects. In German we call this an “U-Boot” (submarine).

Definition of Undercover Innovation Project

An Undercover Innovation Project is an innovation project which is neither registered by the corporate innovation management nor by the higher-level line management, but only known by the project team and their direct boss.

(Note that this is different from a top-secret innovation project, where at least the one who pays for the project knows about the project.)

Most companies do not allow undercover innovation projects

It is understandable that companies and their shareholders like to know – and want to strategically influence – how money is spent in their company.

Why are undercover innovations projects so successful?

It seems that the team motivation is never a high as in the case of an undercover innovation project.

Research Questions

  • Given a significant sample of successful innovations, how large is the ratio of those who started as an undercover innovation? Are this really 50% as in my non-representative conference sample?
  • What is the rational behind the assumed high success rate of undercover innovation projects?
  • What are the required boundary conditions that such undercover innovation projects are successful? (e.g.: the innovators need to understand very well their business)
  • When is the right moment to uncover the project and make it official?
  • Design a set of undercover project rules which are compliant to legal requirements and to company regulations. Goal:  projects which follow those rules are allowed.
    (e.g. maximal size of the project…).
  • Is it possible to transfer the rational behind the high success rate of undercover innovations projects to official innovation projects?

Please, let me know if you are working in this field or if you plan to work in this field or if you know about already existing research in this field.

Early innovation projects need the freedom to find their right way


About heisss
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