• Ferhan Bulca

    I am an executive leader and a serial intrapreneur focused on innovation and design thinking. My purpose in life is to create products and services that make the world a better place to live in.

    In the course of my career, I have developed a deep understanding and expertise on all aspects of technology commercialization and product/service development. As a result, I have built multi-million dollar businesses from the ground up.

    I am the creator and the Lead Instructor for Business Innovation Certificate Program at University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies.

    I offer business consulting services and I am available as a speaker for private and public events.

    Watch my recent talk at Ashoka Canada's Changemakers event at University of Toronto on YouTube.

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Lessons from my grandmother’s life that I only realize after her passing

My grandmother passed away on October 29th, at the age of 89. Remembering my interactions with her and re-thinking how she lived her life, I realized that some of the career choices I have made are strongly influenced by my grandmother. This was a revelation to me.

Here is what she (subconsciously) taught me:

  1. Own your destiny
    My grandmother absolutely rejected the idea of abandoning her home and living under someone else’s care. Even after she reluctantly accepted to have a live-in helper, she insisted that she did most of the housework herself and took care of herself. All her life, she believed that if you wanted something done, you would do it yourself. Actually, I do not remember she ever telling this in words but her every action was a confirmation of what she believed.
  2. Be strong and be approachable
    She had a tough life, especially earlier on. Being the oldest of three daughters to a carpet tradesman, they did not have much to live on. She had to take care of her younger siblings to allow their mother to take care of their household when every housework was a manual task. She developed an enormous amount of strength and drive, which was visible until the last days of her life. Despite this drive, she never lost her human touch. Always genuinely happy to interact with her grand kids, I remember my early interactions with her with a smile on my face.
  3. Get things done first, rest later
    As you may get the picture, she was a go-getter. When I was a little kid, I would watch her in autumn when she prepared for the upcoming winter. She would make tomato paste, pasta, dried soup mix, sausages, pickles and many other staples for the winter. Everything was hand-made. She was known as the machine, who would get her preparation done and go help others.

Now she is gone but the lessons I learned from her will always be with me.


Financial Post Q&A on Intrapreneurship & Innovation

My Q&A session on intrapreneurship with Dan Ovsey of Financial Post is available here.

Dan did a great job in capturing the essence of my points. This is to add a supplementary piece of information regarding the five-step process I mentioned in my Q&A with Dan. You may find more information on my process at a series of my blog posts:

  1. Overview of the five-step process
  2. Step 1: Business design
  3. Step 2: Go-to-market strategy
  4. Step 3: Development
  5. Step 4: Launch
  6. Step 5: Monitor

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please share this posting if you find it helpful. If you have any questions, comments or thoughts, I would love to hear from you.

Teaching Large Organizations How to Innovate

Reading Scott Kirsner’s article titled 11 Ways Big Companies Undermine Innovation (http://goo.gl/kaZFxX) brought up a number of thoughts and memories. Some of these memories support Scott’s observations and coincide with his experience. Some others, however, conflict with them. Being an eternal optimist, I tend to focus on the experiences that create a positive outcome and not dwell on those that did not work out well. “Just learn from them and move on” is my typical thought process.

Basically, I believe that large organizations have inherent advantages to be innovative. I wrote about these advantages in a few earlier blog articles (http://goo.gl/tlEU4m, http://goo.gl/UpKVGZ). This time, I want to share a few experiences. Due to confidentiality of some of the information, I will not go into much detail or reveal names of organizations.

One of my most successful initiatives was in a large organization, which operated in North America with approximately $2B annual revenues. The initiative was major both by my client’s and industry standards. It involved defining a business model and business operating system that was new to the industry, creating a place for this business system in the industry eco-system and launching a new business within this organization. This company did quite a few things right. I will share here the most important ones:

  • A clear definition of what success looks like was developed in the early phases of the initiative. The leaders of business, who brought me in, did not dump the work on me. Instead, they stayed involved and focused when I made them go through exercises to clearly define what success meant. Fortunately for me, they were already in the right mindset.
  • Commitment of resources and attention was at the highest level. After the definition phases, where leaders were intimately involved, one of the top leaders of the company remained as the sponsor of the initiative until the launch of the new business. He ensured that appropriate resources that I identified were available to the initiative, when needed. When internal resources were not available, he helped secure external skills without delay.
  • In a Skunk Works model, I was given significant leverage (or, enough leash to hang myself) in the organization. I created my own team of development, operated under my own conditions and bent rules in many occasions.
  • Early trials (alpha, beta, pilot, etc.) and learning from them were fully supported. “Try and learn” concept was contrary to the culture of this organization. Still, the leaders were open to a new way (to them) of doing things internally. Once they saw early benefits, they fully supported later market tests.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please share this posting if you find it helpful. If you have any questions, comments or thoughts, I would love to hear from you.

Art of Starting a New Business in a Large Organization

These days there is a lot of emphasis on entrepreneurship and start-ups. Intrepreneurial activities, on the other hand, are mostly off the radar of bloggers and authors. As I stated in an earlier post, I believe large organizations can have an innovative advantage if they know how to use it. And, it is a big “if”! The secret sauce is in the organization’s culture. When the culture is open to change, the infusion of innovation can be done publicly and quickly. Otherwise, a more controlled but still transparent infusion is the way to go. Either way, the main ingredients of this secret sauce are the same:


It all starts and dies with the leaders. We need a flag-bearer, a visionary, a committed person who can assemble, motivate and support the cast of characters that will join and leave along the way. The leader needs to be behind the initiative because of belief and commitment, not for personal benefits. This is usually where most large organization initiatives fail. It is hard to find that person who wants to do whatever it takes out of pure commitment to the cause. This feature exists in entrepreneurs and founders. They put their heart and soul into what they believe. That is hardly the case in larger organizations, where many political forces are at play. An innovation leader in a large organization has more responsibility on their shoulders than an entrepreneur does. The job of an innovation leader is roughly a combination of those of an entrepreneur, a VC board member and an independent advisor.

Commitment to Long-Term

Innovation typically requires a substantial investment with a hope for future return. There is an upfront investment of resources (money, time, effort). The hope is that return on investment will be substantial and timely. Well, one of these (amount and time) or both may fail, especially the first time around. As s0meone said “all overnight successes have been in the works for a decade.” This is true for startups and it is true for innovation initiatives at large organizations. Commitment needs to be to long-term success, not a quick win.

Inclusive Behaviour 

Organizations have many micro-structures that obey Newton’s third law of motion. That is, they apply an equal and opposite force to the innovative forces being applied. Exclusive and secretive behaviour fuels this attitude as departments and divisions try to maintain what they are mandated to do. The solution is to exhibit an inclusive and open attitude towards supporters and resistors alike. While not all resistors will become supporters through an inclusive behaviour, they are guaranteed to resist in the face of a secretive behaviour.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Innovation is a Skill, Not a Job!

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who made a statement that I used in the title of this post: “Innovation is a skill, not a position or job description.” I wholeheartedly agree with his statement.

Our Business Innovation Certificate program at University of Toronto primarily attracts entrepreneurs and middle managers. These two groups of people face different challenges. In a couple of earlier blog posts (here and here), I wrote about the differences between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur. Middle managers fit into the description of intrapreneurs, at least the ones who come to our classes.

The most common challenge among intrapreneurs is breaking through the culture of their organizations to bring new and experimental ideas to life. As they correctly notice, taking an idea through the treacherous path of commercialization is their true challenge. There is no one simple solution to this challenge and, in my opinion, this is why innovation is a mystery to many organizations. To deal with this mystery, organizations typically add “innovation” into job descriptions and titles, hoping that if it is somebody’s job, that somebody will be motivated (or, obligated) to figure it out. WRONG!!!

Innovation, in fact, is a personal skill that needs to be developed and nurtured. Innovation, just like any other skill, requires a supporting environment (organizational culture) and relevant tools and techniques to practice it. Therefore, the role of organizational leaders is to create such an environment where people are motivated, not obligated, to learn, practice and improve their innovation skills. Culture of an organization is the one single thing that makes or breaks innovation. All leadership energy needs to focus on creating an appropriate culture or modifying the existing one to support innovation. It is not an easy task but it is possible. Just one hint, do not start with making it a job title or part of job descriptions.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Encouraging Innovative Behaviour in Large Organizations

Recently, I asked for input on blog topics and received this request: Interested in your thoughts on how to encourage employees to be innovative/entrepreneurial in large organizations, when the organization’s structure & measures encourage different behaviours. Also, interested in your thoughts on Gary Hamel’s hypothesis that management (i.e. the structures & principles invented by Taylor, Smith, Ford et al) needs to be re-invented.

This request came at an interesting time for me as I was re-reading Hamel’s book titled The Future of Management. So, here are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth…

First, let’s tackle the question about how to encourage innovative/entrepreneurial behaviour in large organizations when the organization’s structure and measures encourage different (typically, the opposite) behaviour. Until recently, my typical response to this question would go along the lines of creating a separate team culture inside the organization, a la Skunkworks, and protecting the team from the damaging effects of its established (sometimes for a good reason) execution-focused culture. However, a speech by a friend, Edwin Jansen (@EdwinJnsn, www.mouvment.com) made me give it a deeper thought. My realization was that, in fact, there need not be two cultures and an execution-focused culture is not necessarily the obstacle.

Inspired by Simon Sinek and Dan Pink, Edwin summarized three most important attributes for leading innovation:

  • Meaningful work
  • Passion and dedication
  • Willingness to fail (and, learn from it)

Let me pause here and blend in the second part of the question: do I agree with Hamel that management needs to be re-defined? Short answer: YES!!!! Did I say that loudly enough? And, this is where Edwin’s three attributes come into picture. Management principles and techniques developed by Ford, Taylor et al were relevant when industrial revolution happened. It somewhat worked as we transitioned from a labor-based workforce to an information-based work force. The “somewhat” part became the focus of many patchwork adjustments to those management principles that “stood the test of time.” In my opinion, they are antiquated and they have gone way past their useful lives. The fact that we still see innovation and effectiveness as a dichotomy in business supports this hypothesis. Innovation and effectiveness are not two separate, conflicting concepts. Businesses that cannot combine these two concepts in one way or another are destined to disappear from the map, sooner or later.

This blog posting is running the risk of being too long already. So, I will summarize my theory: Management practices have to change to support and encourage the three attributes mentioned above for successful innovation. This means management exposing itself, taking more risk and learning to fail themselves. The desire to introduce tighter controls on the workforce only backfires. For example, how many of those companies initially blocked Facebook still continue to block them? If you company is one of them, keep dreaming that your employees are more efficient because of the block. On the other hand, how many companies that trusted their employees to do the right thing came up with ground-breaking innovation. A bunch come to my mind, what about you?

As a parting teaser, I will also throw in this: Similar to the management principles and techniques, our education system needs a fundamental overhaul to deal with the challenges of future. The teacher (who, supposedly knows it all) and student (who, supposedly knows nothing) model is no longer valid. Nobody needs a repository of knowledge to pull from any more. Knowledge and information are readily available when one needs it. The skills that need development through our education systems are:

  • Ability to simplify complex matters
  • Ability to make meaningful connections
  • Ability to create social and material outputs

Let’s stop here and leave the topic of education to a later posting.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan [at] ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

Making Innovation Everybody’s Job

Class after class I receive the same question as I teach my course on Business Innovation at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education: How do you make innovation everybody’s job?

The fundamental principles are easy and Dan Pink (http://www.danpink.com/drive-the-summaries) stated them succinctly. Three things motivate people to their best and create best results:

  • Purpose –  the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters
  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives

If people feel and experience an environment, where these three components are engrained in their daily professional lives, they will happily make innovation their jobs. Let’s take a look at what most, if not all, corporate warriors actually experience instead.

Sloganism without Purpose

Take your regular management and all-hands meetings where business goals are shared, sometimes to adrenalin-rushing background music. You may feel good about the show C-level puts on but do you feel like you have an inspiring purpose to run back to your desk/lab/kiosk and start doing things better, faster, cheaper? I doubt that you do.

On the other hand, take Vijay Govindarajan’s $300 house vision (http://www.300house.com). Govindarajan simply explains how a $300 house can help billions of people on the planet and challenges everyone to contribute to such a house. Does that inspire you to do something new, novel and amazing? I would think so.

Hierarchy without Autonomy

Hierarchy may help you run your daily business but it won’t help you inspire people to do better everyday than they did the day before. For some reason, we all realize that we are at our best when we can decide for ourselves. But, most people do the exact opposite when they take on a management/leadership role. Even spectacular examples (eg. Linux, Wikipedia) of self-driven success do not deter many from their iron-handed approach to manage others.

Management without Mastery

Almost all companies I have dealt with emphasize the need to create detailed job descriptions, processes and procedures. These are presented to the employee under the disguise of “providing clarity of expectations” and are used for basis for discipline if not met. Training requests of employees are routinely turned down because “they are not in line with the company’s expectations”. How many people feel trapped in their jobs with nowhere to go? Taking away opportunities to build mastery does that to people.

Bottom Line

As I have been advocating before, large organizations have many advantages if they can overcome the obstacles I describe above. There are examples of organizations that successfully overcome these obstacles but their numbers can be significantly improved with appropriate leadership practices.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan [at] ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.


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