Interview – Rowan Gibson of “Innovation to the Core”
I had the opportunity to interview Rowan Gibson, co-author of “Innovation to the Core” about the book and about creating a systemic innovation capability inside organizations.
Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. In addition to “Innovation to the Core, Rowan is author of “Rethinking The Future”, and a keynote speaker at large international conferences, corporate management events and executive summits.
We have split this in-depth interview into three parts. Here is the second part of the interview:
3. Innovation demand in an organization is equal in importance to innovation supply, but why don’t most companies see that?
Again, it’s because they are usually too focused on the front end. So they work hard to push up the supply of ideas, launching initiatives like online suggestion boxes, open innovation programs, creative competitions, and perhaps some kind of reward and recognition system. But they fail to create the necessary demand for innovation, meaning the natural, reflexive pull for new ideas within and across the businesses. Failure to drive and manage the demand side of innovation is often where the whole initiative falls flat.
I often ask companies a simple set of questions to gauge the level of innovation demand inside their organizations. For example, Do the executives who run your company’s core businesses demonstrate genuine interest in radical, new ideas by redeploying adequate resources behind them? Are they held personally responsible for the performance of their unit’s innovation pipeline? Do they spend a significant percentage of their time mentoring innovation projects?
One of the dilemmas today is that, in most organizations, the pressure to innovate is not very real and tangible to senior managers. If you are running one of the company’s business units, for example, what is real and tangible to you is the pressure to meet the numbers – to improve operational performance – and you know you are being monitored on a monthly, weekly, daily, or even minute-by-minute basis. But there is usually no similar pressure that is holding you directly accountable for innovation performance. So your natural bias is to worry a lot more about efficiency, and short-term earnings, and monthly variances from budget, than about the innovation performance of your business unit.
The challenge, therefore, is to create a whole set of pressure points on the demand side that will make leaders as sensitive and responsive to the need to innovate as they are to the need to make the numbers. For example, companies can give senior managers unreasonably high growth targets that call for innovative ways to dramatically outperform the average; they can force their senior managers to allocate a portion of their budget to fostering innovation projects; and they can link a sizeable part of executive compensation directly to innovation performance. These are the kinds of measures GE has taken to drive innovation demand across the organization, and it has produced impressive results because GE is a company where managers are fanatic about achieving their goals.
4. Since the book was published, have you come across other organizations that you think are doing systemic innovation really well?
When we were writing the book, we devoted quite a lot of ink to companies like Whirlpool, P&G, IBM, GE, Shell, W.L. Gore, and Cemex. These are all excellent examples. Since then, of course, I’ve been working with all sorts of other organizations to embed innovation as a systemic capability. They include pharmaceuticals giants like Bayer and Roche: tech champions like Microsoft and Nokia: financial services leaders like Generali Group; massive consulting firms like Accenture; manufacturing companies like Rexam, top automobile brands like Volkswagen; trend-setting retailers like Ahold and Metro; home appliance makers like Philips and Haier; even heavy engineering firms like Debswana diamond mining. For the last half-year, I’ve also been very busy with Mars – the global manufacturer of chocolate, pet food and other food products – and I’ve seen a lot of progress there, too.
What really satisfies me is to see companies like these gradually institutionalizing and managing innovation as a discipline. So some of them are setting up innovation directors, innovation boards, business unit innovation officers, and innovation ambassadors. They are introducing comprehensive new metrics to measure their innovation performance. They are building new processes to produce and nurture a continuous stream of innovation opportunities from inside and outside the organization, as well as robust innovation pipelines for taking ideas from mind to market. They are giving their people new tools – including the “Four Lenses” methodology and web-based innovation platforms – that open up the innovation process to everyone. They are training literally thousands of their employees to use these skills and tools, and setting up incentive schemes and reward ceremonies to encourage them to innovate every day. They are hardwiring all their HR systems – pay, spot awards, the long-term incentive plan, the balanced score card objectives – into the company’s innovation strategy. They are creating new cultural mechanisms, such as a discretionary time allowance, to foster and support innovators throughout their ranks. They are building dedicated innovation spaces where their people can ideate together. And they are working hard to make innovation a tangible corporate value, rather than just an aspiration.
There are few other companies, too – ones that I have not yet personally worked with – that I would point to as good examples of systemic innovation. They include Best Buy and McDonald’s in the USA, and Tata in India. In fact, there’s a rapidly growing list of organizations around the world that seem to be gaining traction with the innovation management challenge, and what they demonstrate is that large companies really can tackle innovation successfully in a broad-based and highly systemic way.
5. People often talk about not having time to innovate. How can people find the time for themselves or their employees?
This is such an important issue. When we asked more than five hundred senior and midlevel managers in large U.S. companies to identify the biggest barriers to innovation in their respective organizations, one of the most common responses was “lack of time.” Most of us are struggling simply to get through the day, and it’s almost impossible to think creatively, reflect on new strategic insights and innovate in a focused manner when you’re running from one meeting to the next, making loads of phone calls, writing a thousand emails and frantically trying to work through all the other tasks on your to-do list. So companies need to think seriously about freeing up more time, energy, and brainpower across the organization to devote to innovation and growth.
The fact is, none of us are going to “find” time for innovation. We are going to have to “make” time for it by driving a wedge into our agendas and turning innovation it one of our strategic priorities. In the book we say that carving out time for employees to imagine and experiment and develop their own ideas is the “first commandment of innovation”. For some companies, a discretionary time allowance seems to work quite successfully. Well-known examples would be 3M, Gore and Google, where employees can spend a percentage of their time on pet projects. Other organizations take a number of people out of their day jobs for a certain period – say, a few weeks or months – and let them concentrate on generating new insights and ideas as members of dedicated innovation teams. Here, I’m thinking of companies like Whirlpool and Cemex. In addition, Whirlpool also has a formal training program where people are given time to learn the principles, skills, and tools of innovation in the same way as they learnt Six Sigma. Then there’s the example of Shell, where the time allowance actually comes after a person or team has submitted an idea, and these people are given one or two months, rising to perhaps a whole year, to design some small-scale, low-cost experiments to test the validity of their new business concepts.
The other thing to remember, as I have been emphasizing all along, is that creating bandwidth for innovation is not just about the front end. It also has to do with freeing up top management time for the back end of innovation – time to devote to steering innovation activities, reviewing ongoing innovation projects, setting priorities, allocating resources, mentoring innovators and embedding innovation as a core competence. And making innovation stick requires a significant number of people – outside of R&D and new product development – who officially work on a full- or part-time basis on innovation activities. One global company has already appointed 1,200 part-time innovation mentors along with 50 full-time innovation consultants, who coach and support would-be innovators throughout the organization, helping them push their ideas forward.
Don’t miss parts one and three:
- Part 1 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
- Part 3 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B inbound marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.