This article was published on May 30, 2019

Investing in ‘magnet’ teams is the key to enterprise innovation

Magnet what?

Investing in ‘magnet’ teams is the key to enterprise innovation Image by: icons8 (edited)
Vijay Sankaran
Story by

Vijay Sankaran

CIO, TD Ameritrade

As Chief Information Officer of TD Ameritrade, Vijay Sankaran is responsible for incubating, introducing, and managing new capabilities, as As Chief Information Officer of TD Ameritrade, Vijay Sankaran is responsible for incubating, introducing, and managing new capabilities, as well as for the implementation of the company's data and analytics ecosystem, including bringing enhanced personalization to the client experience.

Picture an innovator.

I’d be willing to bet that you’re not imagining someone in a suit. That’s fair; when it comes to innovation, big companies have a pretty bad rap. They are more often seen as big, clunky, behind the times — steady, sure, but not where you think to look for rapid-fire development of game-changing technologies. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

What do large enterprises need to foster innovation? Invest in magnets. No, not rocks or metals or kitschy fridge decoration, but small, dedicated innovation teams what will attract and inspire the broader enterprise.

I’ll explain what I mean. Within a large organization, innovation and change can be difficult. To create an enterprise-wide culture shift, you need to harness the power of your community.

By creating and investing resources into small internal innovation teams, comprised of cross-functional specialists tasked with tackling specific, hard-to-reach goals, you offer a window into innovations in your business that many may not have thought possible. And as these “magnet” teams achieve success, others within the company will take notice and want to get in on the fun.

But creating and supporting these teams comes with challenges. Here are some key pieces of advice, along with some important lessons I’ve learned:

Set the speed

Keeping up with the pace of innovation is a challenge for any company, but big corporations can be at a disadvantage when it comes to speed. With this in mind, one of the best things you can do to stay apace is introduce agile methodologies to your organization.

To help secure corporate buy-in, consider taking a pilot approach: identify a specific project or campaign where you can test-run agile with one team while comparing against a “control” group. Shortly after I became CIO of TD Ameritrade in 2016, we ran an incredibly successful pilot with a new robo-advisor product, and when other business partners took notice, they began to speak up and voice their interest in adopting agile methods on their teams, too.

Agile creates the right environment for innovation “magnets” to emerge and form, and this ecosystem has had a tremendous impact on our organization. From nearly zero in January of 2016, about 80 percent of our business operated under agile as of October of last year.


Even if you have clear goals and great ideas for your team at the outset, sometimes, you may need to evolve your approach. For example, when we created a “tiger team” for strategic partnership innovation in 2017, we started with 12 employees on three-month rotations from different departments in the company.

We loved the idea of giving more employees the opportunity to work on these teams and create constant innovation. Unfortunately, the reality was that to achieve the goals we set at the speed we wanted, we needed continuity.

We stabilized the team’s staffing, and within its first year, the tiger team was able to launch product applications on five of the “big seven” technology platforms (Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, and Microsoft). Based on this success, the company decided to formalize the tiger team as a full-time team from various departments, including engineering, product and design, among others.

Being able to recognize what’s working well — and, crucially, being willing to let go of what’s holding you back, however much you may like the idea — can have a remarkably positive impact on what your innovation teams can ultimately deliver.

Pave the way for catalysts

Simply establishing an innovation team, or teams, isn’t enough. To really establish momentum, you need the members of those teams to be innovation experts, armed with knowledge of the absolute cutting-edge technologies and next-generation problem-solving methodologies, such as design thinking.

Investing the time and resources into ensuring these teams are — and stay — as educated and up-to-date as possible allows them to really become the catalysts within your organization who will spark change and rethink how business can be done.

Start small, but think big

It’s hard, if not impossible, to get 10,000+ people fully and quickly on board with anything at all, much less a huge shift in the way they do their work. Of course, that’s a big reason why creating clusters of small, dedicated innovation teams is the best way to start infusing innovation into an enterprise’s culture.

But even with those teams in place, it’s important to think about ways to engage the broader company community directly in innovation efforts. If you want an enterprise to be innovative, you have to think holistically about infusing innovation internally.

A good place to start would be encouraging associates at all levels to bring forward their ideas, and creating an environment where being vulnerable to failure is embraced and actively promoted. You never want to inadvertently box anyone out or miss out on great ideas, so creating these channels for everyone at the company is key.

Solve real problems

The days of innovation for innovation’s sake are over. Enterprises are in a unique position to have a big impact on real problems, and your employees joined your company because they know that.

Don’t use new and emerging technologies like AI simply for their novelty — identify pain points and leverage the best tools to bring a best-in-class client experience. Similarly, recognize your duty to bring these efficiencies and innovations to better the experience of your own associate community.

Empowering your innovation team to take on big challenges that will significantly impact your customers and colleagues is an incredible way to ensure that not only will your team do work they feel proud of, but that the entire business will benefit.

By understanding the challenges and planning accordingly, innovation teams can be a game-changer for enterprises across industries, and at my company they’ve allowed us to innovate quickly and help us stay ahead of the competition.

And by the way, we don’t even wear suits.  

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