Ryan Stoner | Brand Strategist

Regardless of industry or size, your company should be exploring a Beta Department. An innovation group designed for the speed and nature of today’s culture and business. A lack of devoted staff, brainpower, and resources devoted to brainstorming technology and new products will leave you getting “Ubered”. Taxi companies, as well as other public transportation outlets, all experienced a huge shake-up when Uber came about and dominated the scene, and found themselves scrambling to keep up.

Also known as Innovation Labs, these are subsets of your company devoted strictly to developing new ideas, solving new problems, recruiting tech talent, and creating viable products, with a focus on consumer needs, tech trends, and market share strategy.

They are often dismissed by companies for bringing in no revenue and being a drain on resources as well as billable hours, but when it comes down to it, you can’t put a price tag on being the first to solve a problem no one else has solved or creating a system to lower the barriers of employees executing on their own breakthrough ideas. Acting as a breeding ground for creating disruptive ventures by connecting entrepreneurial individuals and providing an alternative path to nurture some of the ideas that employees have for products and services.

Beta Departments are scalable based on size and revenue of your company, and they are not restricted to tech companies by any means. Home improvement chain Lowe’s, Capital One, Coca-Cola, and creative agencies such as Grey & 360i have all gotten into the brainstorming game, as well as many others.

How you develop the ideas into a viable product or service varies based on your company, but what you need is to keep in mind how a project may seem silly in the lab but have uses in the commercial world. Designing a doll that knows your name when you get close to it may seem silly, but the technology you build to make that happen has so many commercial uses. That same technology that “sees” a smartphone loaded with your specific app and calls a specific response can be used in Target, for example, to “see” and send a 60-minute-only coupon to the woman who has the Target app on her phone as she walks through the door.

The hot technology trends that are the most leveragable for innovative design now, such as mobile wallet, chatbots, virtual reality, connected devices, ad targeting, and messaging apps, are the easiest and smartest to jump into. They are already out there, easy to access for both consumer and company, but none of them have been fully realized for the full scope of what they can provide in the way of needs of your consumers.

All you need is some time apart from the current needs of your business devoted to a Beta Department, and some smart people willing to think outside-the-box!

To get started: You need a team of creative individuals that represent many areas of your company, not just tech talent. You need to make sure they have a deep understanding of your company and your base audience. You need to have a pretty open-ended hierarchy in the group (with the exception of one designated lead to keep things on track.) This can range anywhere in size from being an entire division of your company to a team that meets bi-weekly on Friday afternoons, depending on the funds you have available to devote to the department. They need to be able to work mostly autonomously, but they also need to be regulated to produce content and adhere to the timelines they set for projects. There should be room for brainstorming sessions that take the group in a new direction, but there should be a set of priorities identified by upper management based on needs and problems that need a solution within the company. They should be able to make a working prototype of any program, device, or product they come up with.

And if you are still not sold on the idea of a Beta Department, the fact of the matter is companies need an innovation outlet to attract the best people.

Big companies need more of this when it comes to winning the talent wars — fueling young employees desires to build something new through the support of small side projects.

Companies with Beta Departments will win the talent wars for younger talent. Whether in the form of an in-house innovation labs or working with clients to consider new innovations, a percentage of employees time should be reserved for innovation bursts to explore possibilities — experimenting, failing, testing, and learning.

Beta departments feeds growth. Instead of maximizing short-term ROI (Return on Investment), focus on maximizing long-term return on innovation. Let a thousand flowers blossom. Invest, build and commercialize ideas using your own teams and resources.

A commitment to being involved in the execution of new employee ideas allows companies to be ahead of the pack, be exposed to new ways of thinking, and forge productive partnerships that can help you or our clients engage with customers. The practice of encouraging the best and brightest to take time away from regular tasks in order to pursue their brainiest ideas is how big companies can remain competitive and attract and retain talented people. It is also my personal motivation for helping agencies, big brands and like-minded companies move forward to maintain a competitive advantage in a world of constant change.


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