Creating a culture of invention: Demystifying adjacent innovation 

March 6, 2017
It was almost like an “Iron Chef” competition where we said to each of our industry experts: “Here’s are your ingredients, now create multiple dishes.” Through this approach, we were able to create 7 entirely different products for 7 industries from those same CRM components. That’s adjacent innovation.

Christina Van Houten leads Infor’s cross-functional adjacent innovation initiatives. In a recent article, she notes: “When a company takes an existing product or service and leverages it into a new space, that’s called adjacent innovation.”

Some historical examples:

  • IBM’s application of technology from military computers and networks in the 1950s to help create the groundbreaking computerized Sabre airline reservation system that went live in 1964.

  • The evolution of a global positioning system (GPS) designed for military intelligence operations at the height of the Cold War into a satellite network underpinning dozens of civilian applications in map-making, climate studies, outdoor recreation, and more.

  • The creation of Uber through combining geo-location, data analytics, and digital payments to launch a new service that has reinvented an entire industry.

These are just a few examples from “Creating a Culture of Adjacent Innovation,” another article by Van Houten recently featured on

Here's a Q&A with Van Houten, Infor’s SVP of Market Strategy and Product Management:

Why did Infor embrace adjacent innovation?

Infor embarked on a major initiative to transform the way we do business, accelerating innovation, introducing new solutions, transforming existing applications to operate in the cloud, and harvesting the best of the best of our portfolio for the good of all applications and suites. As part of that effort, we drove change all along the operational continuum.

On one end of the spectrum, we pursued proactive, explicit initiatives where we took on a problem, brainstormed to figure out how to solve it, and incorporated interdisciplinary thinking to end up in the right place. This involved putting the right mix of people on the right teams to drive clear deliverables. We combined people with strong domain in the particular area we were addressing with experts in other areas, creating an optimized portfolio of skill sets. This organizational framework and operating model enabled a level of constructive chaos that has produced widespread and impactful results.

On the other end of the continuum, we created a culture that more organically fosters serendipitous, ongoing interactions with the goal of achieving unplanned innovations that happen on the fly. When you have a culture that fosters cross-collaboration and exploration, creative insights are more likely to emerge because you’re constantly talking to new people and considering ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise explored. Achieving a mix of deliberate and spontaneous innovation creates the ideal combination that produces both a great culture and compelling results.

Can you give an example of adjacent innovation in action?

It’s been interesting to leverage our customer experience platform (CRM) across industries. For example, we saw an opportunity to draw from work we were doing for our retail customers and apply the same technology to address a challenge facing what seems like a very different industry, healthcare.

As part of our cross-functional adjacent innovation initiatives, we took our core CRM platform that helps retailers manage and analyze interactions at every customer touchpoint, and we reinvented it as a platform that hospitals and healthcare systems could use to manage engagement with patients and their families.

Then we built out a full portfolio of CRM solutions for 6 other verticals, including automotive, financial services, and public sector, among others, all on the same underlying technology platform. It was almost like an “Iron Chef” competition where we said to each of our industry experts: “Here’s are your ingredients, now create multiple dishes.” Through this approach, we were able to create 7 entirely different products from those same components.

What are practical ways a business can adopt adjacent innovation?

There are 3 key elements to achieving an innovation culture that’s both proactive and spontaneous: people, process, and products.

  1. People — With talent, we carefully consider the combined DNA of each group to ensure we end up with a complete and complementary portfolio of strengths. When hiring and assembling these groups, we consider 3 points on a talent triangle: 1) industry domain knowledge, 2) expertise in the role, 3) the intangibles, particularly entrepreneurialism, work ethic, overall smarts, and creativity. That third quality can really make or break the team’s ability to capitalize on the first 2 strengths.

  1. Process — The process or ecosystem that we create for our teams is central to their ability to have a positive, productive culture. We start by ensuring clarity — what they are trying to achieve, each individual’s role in the broader group, and how everyone is going to engage. Clarity around how the process is going to help the team achieve its objective, giving them structure but also flexibility and latitude, is the key to success. Moreover, everyone needs to feel like they’re on the same bus, headed to the same place, and that they’re going to enjoy the ride.

  1. Products — Finally, whether it’s an actual product, a presentation, or an event, it’s important to be clear about how the group’s efforts will culminate into something tangible. What’s the deliverable, what will define success, how will it impact stakeholders and the organization or business, and how will it be measured? It’s important for everyone on the team to have a collective “mind’s eye,” or one clear goal shared by the entire team.

Read “Creating a Culture of Adjacent Innovation” for more detail on how to evolve your organization and why companies capitalize on this approach to grow beyond their standard portfolios and achieve unprecedented insights to drive new offerings and market opportunities.

Read “Adjacent innovation – unlikely connections that move our world” on to learn more about this important concept.

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