3 lessons in global innovation from a Fortune 100 that’s winning outside the U.S.

By Vanessa Pineda on May 02, 2019

If you’re leading a large team that’s globally dispersed, you understand the challenge to create an innovative culture that can span physical boundaries. One Fortune 100, whose headquarters are in the United States, but has offices in 50+ countries, wanted to address this by creating a repeatable, bi-annual event that everyone could participate in globally with equal vigor and enthusiasm. They decided to run an internal crowdfunding campaign across their global sites.*

Despite nearly 60% of employees being in the U.S., the campaign has been a hit globally. 47% of the ideas they crowdsourced from employees came from outside the U.S. This is a vivid reminder about the energy that can be tapped in a global audience and the possible outcomes when that energy is channeled correctly.

The influx of ideas coming from countries like Japan and Germany was a welcome surprise to an executive sponsor and core team based in the U.S. Because of the unique factors in working with other regions, like time-zone, proximity, and language, doing any kind of substantive innovation initiative had only seen middling results.

Based on this success (and other global client engagements), we’ve captured 3 lessons that we believe are critical in building and sustaining global innovation.

1. Build and amplify the collective voice

In global companies, there’s a treasure trove of institutional knowledge, expertise and capabilities that go untapped from one region to the next. Finding ways to harness the collective voice allows employees to generate a signal about what skills exist and what things the organization should be focusing on. This was core to our approach: one global crowdfunding campaign supported by our Ignite platform where employees from all regions could go in to nominate and fund each other’s ideas. (It’s important to note that this meant all idea proposals had to be submitted in English.)

We also considered running separate “mini” crowdfunding campaigns for each region on their own private platform to accommodate for different languages, but we prioritized not losing the visibility gained from having one global site.

At one point, the client weighed running the replica of a popular television show Shark Tank, where we’d crowdsource ideas globally and a handful of executives would make final selections. Unfortunately, this trendy approach has the same pitfalls we were working to fix: it’s a top-down process where the collective employee voice is non-existent in idea selection, and there’s no opportunity to capture signals from the crowd about investment decisions. (Note: We avoid these pitfalls with our version of a Shark Tank using crowdfunding). 

2. Start small

Our next lesson is about scope and breadth of ideas. Cultivate’s crowdfunding platform is designed to support seed-stage ideas, or small proof-of-concept experiments that can be tested quickly. Keeping to this, employee ideas were to be experiments they could test within their location, while having a vision for how the idea could be expanded to other sites or regions if successful. When an idea proves its success locally, then a team could grow across two or three sites, and gradually become comfortable working at scale.

3. Replicate rich communication locally

Proximity allows people to build trust through richer communication: we know it’s easier to discuss complex issues informally, brainstorm, collaborate, and iterate on ideas with peers. We needed to replicate these experiences across each country to really foster an entrepreneurial mindset. In our case, here’s how we supported employees in Japan, one of our client’s largest locations outside the U.S.:

  • The core team running the campaign added a senior person from each region (the Chiefs of Staff to the R&D Regional Head). Though the core team leader and a few others were based in the U.S., they quickly included regional leads to execute activities at the local level. Flexibility across time zones is important here, as is having someone who is a good communicator spearheading each regional effort. For example, due to timing, the Chief of Staff in Japan communicated often via email instead of by conference call with the core team lead in the U.S.. 
  • Idea mentors assigned to every region - Mentors were assigned to review and provide guidance on the ideas that came in from their regions. They were the boots on the ground also helping with marketing efforts for the campaign. The core team led global calls with mentors to check in on issues arising with ideas and to keep them informed of upcoming activities. 
  • Launched the campaign through local channels/activities -  R&D leadership announced the campaign at a global town hall and an email was sent announcing the campaign within each region; additionally, the Chief of Staff in Japan ran a live launch meeting, using a template deck created by the core team to reinforce consistent messaging. 
  • A live “pitch event” held regionally for people to pitch their ideas to peers - Each pitch event was recorded and shared on the global intranet page so that employees from different regions could tune in at their own time to hear pitches. Japan’s pitch event was conducted a few weeks before the others and served as an example. Held in the Tokyo office “Design Lab,” the space was conducive to informal exploration and learning. Leads brought in brain-teaser type “toys” (think: rubiks cubes and 3-D puzzle sets) that were placed on tables and desks to create an energetic environment. The intent was to put people at ease with asking questions, making suggestions about ideas, and perhaps generating new ideas. The event clearly succeeded in doing so as 50% of Japan’s ideas were submitted after the event. 

The momentum early on from our client’s Japan office sent waves across the other regions. The U.S. and other countries adopted similar communication practices. For instance, the U.S. got inspired to hold small, informal design "brainstorming" sessions to get more ideas generated from their region prior to their pitch event. 

From what we’ve learned, disbursed global innovation can happen successfully when a coordinated effort is made to represent and implement local drivers of engagement. Only then can you support and supplement those experiences with a broader, cohesive vision and achieve outcomes relevant for the global organization.


*An internal crowdfunding campaign refers to the campaigns run on our Cultivate Ignite platform that allow employees to submit and fund ideas using a budget of Company money or time.

You may also be interested to read:

Canadian Nuclear Labs’ scientists crowdfund $1.4M in seed-stage ideas

Can you crowdfund your way to a better culture at your company?


By Vanessa Pineda

Vanessa is the Director of Professional Services at Cultivate Labs.

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