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Intuit's Secret Sauce of Innovation

By Jeffrey Tobias in San Francisco

Bennett Blank is an innovation leader. His early efforts to introduce Lean Startup to US accounting software maker Intuit were going well and spreading slowly through his division. Then one day his boss asked him a question:

“This Lean Startup stuff is great and we’ve seen some good results, but we can’t scale you. How are you going to make a big impact beyond yourself and scale this approach across Intuit?”

Any enlightened innovator can inspire others when in direct audience; the challenge is sparking a whole-of-company revolution. How can one individual effect such massive cultural transformation? How can an innovation leader recruit others to their cause, changing ‘me’ into ‘we’?

The first step is to convince your colleagues that it’s worth following. Lean Startup is often credited with injecting speed, customer focus and frugality into businesses, with its practitioners rapidly running experiments to understand customers better without investing too much time, money or effort. Beyond these, Bennett points to three reasons he is a dedicated proponent of Lean Startup:

  • It makes the first step easy – by reducing what feels like an intimidating entrepreneurial journey into a series of small and incremental steps.
  • It feels safer to take bigger risks – with a test-and-learn approach that helps innovators to validate assumptions and reduce uncertainty.
  • It stops us judging ourselves for failing – because failure is an integral part of the Lean Startup process and of learning about our ideas in the real world.

While spruiking the benefits of Lean Startup may attract some attention, you can’t tell people to “be more innovative” and hope that they will suddenly do just that. People need a carefully cultivated blend of inspiration, teaching and empowerment. Bennett offers five hard-learned principles that have worked for him at Intuit to effect such substantial cultural change:

  • Go where you are loved – start small with like-minded innovators, then go around solving other people’s problems for them and you will find that you gain allies wherever you go.
  • Give it away – teach others the process and then let them make it their own – with no strings attached – because you can’t control it anyway if you are trying to influence the entire organisation.
  • Teach & inspire – even if the principles make sense, people will always want concrete examples, so show, don’t tell. Over time, students that practise will themselves become teachers and exhibit their own efforts around the organisation, causing a multiplier effect.
  • Use your existing culture – introducing Lean Startup as something bigger, better and fundamentally different will cause people to dig in their heels in revolt. Keep it feeling familiar by positioning it as an evolution of what you already do, by leveraging off existing culture, concepts and programs.
  • You are the product – walk the talk by applying Lean Startup to you and to your efforts to inspire the organisation. Show them how its done by starting small, working cheaply and quickly and inspiring others with your actions.

Bennett points to one particular campaign, ‘100 start-ups in 100 days’, which demonstrates his manifesto. With only one quarter’s worth of funding, Bennett and some loyal followers encouraged 10 different areas of Intuit to each launch 10 start-up ventures (the maths adds up). While the business impact of the initiative was staggering at $30 million in just 18 months, the most important outcome for Bennett was that this result was delivered by new Lean Startup conscripts, not his team.

So how do you think he responded to his boss’ question? Our best guess is “view your efforts as an evolution and, if you do it with the right mix of inspiration, teaching and empowering, the revolution might just follow.”

For assistance with implementing The Lean Startup in your organisation, contact me at

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