Ken Savin, is both Director of Process Chemistry Research at Eli Lilly & Company, and a well-informed and inspiring voice on innovation. His views come from a particularly challenging place as the global behemoths of big pharma pursue new molecules and medicines and the development of productive new pipelines into the future.
Ken joined Eli Lilly 1998, having earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Utah in 1996, and having served as a medicinal chemist at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Cancer Research Center. At Lilly, Ken’s collaborated on a number of cross-functional research projects spanning Lilly’s Discovery, Global External Research & Development, Process Chemistry, and Product Development organizations.
Ken now serves as technology and innovation advisor for Lilly’s Development Group, with a particular focus on the product design and development. Active in the technology and innovation communities of Indianapolis, he also – somehow – finds time to teach chemistry as an adjunct professor at Butler University.
I first met Ken at the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston this past May where I was captivated by his remarkable presentation “Predicting the Future”. My interest in Ken’s insights led to my follow-up and the following conversation where Ken holds forth on a number of key dynamics, including: risk, inspiration, commitment, and teams…
Lou Killeffer: Ken, what in your view, is “innovation” today?
Ken Savin: For many it’s just a buzzword but it can be much more if you really put in the effort to accomplish something. In the end, I’d say, innovation is “The effective implementation of creative ideas in order to generate value.”
LK: Do you think there’s consensus around your definition, or any other?
KS: Yes, in general I think there’s consensus with my definition, or at least the key parts of it, there may be some disagreement with the small points. For example, does an idea need to be a “big idea” to be called innovative?
LK: Good question. Why’s there so much confusion around innovation and what it means?
KS: There are a few points that confuse our common understanding of innovation. It doesn’t have to be a totally new idea to be innovative: taking someone else’s idea from another industry and applying it in your space can be innovative. If an idea is seemingly simple or not far from what was already there, but the results are big, that also can be truly innovative. And perhaps most commonly, if an idea is novel and creative, but of little or no value in application, then it may not be innovative at all by my definition. It may just be creative, which is all well and good but there’s a big difference…
LK: Agreed. What makes innovation so difficult? Why do so many companies fail at it?
KS: Well, it’s very hard to manage for one thing. Modern, established businesses are built on planning and organizing their programs around milestones and continuous progress, and this often runs counter to the way corporate “innovation programs” work.
Often innovation programs, and their output, are simply not predictable. They cannot be sped up or managed to run faster or generate more output by simply pumping more money into them. They cannot be “controlled” and to the executive leadership running an enterprise today that’s just not acceptable. They need to know they have a solid flow, a steady stream of innovations, new products and services, coming along and headed to market – and this may not always be the case.
As a consequence, the value of innovation programs can be hard to measure. If I invest another X dollars into this innovation project whose output is in the middle of a whole bunch of steps leading to a yet to be determined product in the future, well ok, how do I value that? Managers hate that. That’s why so many companies start off being very innovative and over time end up over managing the programs that started out seemingly so freewheeling and productive. The managers want the growth to continue and wind up pushing to get results, instead of innovation, and sometimes it just doesn’t work like that.
I think the last problem many companies face is that very often the “solution finders” become separated from the customers, both internal and external, so that their well thought out and executed “innovations” end up having no real value in the end.
LK: Why do those companies who do succeed find it so hard to build on their success, to innovate again and again. Take for example, perhaps somewhat famously Sony, and perhaps more currently P&G?
KS: Well, Lou, I wouldn’t count either of those organizations out. And I can’t address their situations specifically, but in general a couple of hurdles come up again and again.
Losing sight of what your customer really wants and needs as I mentioned before is the first. Enough said. Missing the dynamic trends in society goes hand in hand with that. Not seeing the bigger picture of innovations that occur at the connections between business, business models, new technologies and customer needs.
Finally, the real Achilles’ heel is not understanding risk. Punishing the people who experiment with approaches that are outside the norm, the people who think differently, and are the risk takers, and then wondering why people won’t take risks. Clearly punishment, or better yet the lack of reward, is often built into most performance processes…
LK: Culturally accepting risk is obviously key, Ken, are there other “best practices” you believe in that can be applied to innovation?
KS: Sure, there are a few for me. They may not work for everyone but some of the things I think are critical include approaching innovation as part of a team. Thinking about innovation and coming up with ideas on my own but bringing it all back to a group that I can trust and will be open with me in providing honest feedback and building on the idea; that’s critical.
I also think you need to have a strong network that you can go to for help. Pulling ideas from other places and spaces expands the required breadth of knowledge as well as the network necessary to pull it all off.
And finally a willingness to experiment a lot is vital. Running really risky experiments and learning from the failures, this is key.
LK: What’s at the core of the approach taken at Lilly? What’s essential to your model?
KS: For the most part, for us, innovation is molecule innovation effort. But that’s changing for the industry as other aspects of customer engagement are becoming more important. We run many experiments and the output are thoroughly evaluated. We fail…a lot…and we’re comfortable with that. Our focus is on the patient and making solutions that work.. With that singular goal we’ve created a focused innovation program that’s capable of delivering answers to challenges even through such a complex system.
LK: What, if anything, do your projects typically have in common?
KS: Well, first of all, because of the complicated process and requirements and all the unknowns, they’re bound to fail most of the time. But we’ve created processes and developed internal experts that help develop the projects forward in a logical way that keeps improving our chances for success. As I mentioned, we’re willing to take risks and are careful to examine the outcomes without focusing on the failure or blame but rather what can we learn and then moving on.
LK: What’s the significance of insight and intuition in your innovation program?
KS: Great question. Parts of our innovation system can be managed and even enhanced through the application of management practices and building in efficiencies. But part of the process is better led than managed. Sensing where you should allow freedom to explore and improve the chances for success may be difficult to understand and even harder for a manager to allow, but it’s very necessary. Serendipity and using seemingly odd results can be difficult to manage but critical to successful innovation.
LK: You mentioned team based efforts before, what’s the role of the team versus the role of an individual in successful innovation?
KS: Teams are the standard requirement for most innovations in modern life. The lone genius, for the most part, is a thing of the past; perhaps even a myth. There may still be special people who can push to get great things accomplished but teams are the ones who get it done…make it real. A group of individuals enabling others to bring forward new ideas and experiments that improve the way an organization generates new ideas. A group that helps others execute on their plans and learns from these efforts, ultimately leading to more innovation and profitability for the enterprise. Even just a small team of two: connecting people and getting them to work as a pair on a particular piece of work can have a dramatic effect on output and engagement.
LK: Two does make a team doesn’t it! Ken, where, in your view, do the best innovators come from? What, if anything, do they have in common?
KS: They come from everywhere. They’re generally inquisitive people who’re dissatisfied with where they are or what’s happening around them. And they’re willing to share their views with others and spend the time to look for solutions. When you think about it, this is a pretty good description of people who have a passion for an issue. They’re the best innovators!
LK: What was you first innovation project? How did it go?
KS: Here at Lilly? I started a network group about six years ago that connected people to work on small projects and discuss the literature on a variety of topics. It was a diverse group of technical and non-technical people. After a while we expanded to include other people we knew and our projects got larger. The initial effort was just to expend people’s networks but it became an informal team dedicated to getting small innovation projects kicked off or enabling other teams to get their projects done.
LK: How do you determine what the real problem is? How do you know when you’ve succeeded and the problem’s solved?
KS: Another great question. Determining the real problem is the hardest part. Crafting the problem statement is key and we often revert to tools some of us learned as Six Sigma black belts or as part of our collaborations with groups like InnoCentive to better refine the problem and then build a plan to find solutions to implement against it.
LK: Which of your many projects has been the thorniest?
KS: The most difficult challenges have been situations where people have a lot invested, when they know they have a problem and don’t want to be seen as having a problem. For the most part, the way to address this is to make sure the people involved understand we are there to help them, that we want to make their lives easier and that in the end they’ll look great as a result!
LK: Is there one project you’re most proud of?
KS: The Lilly Innovation Day Project I described at the 2012 Front End of Innovation conference is one of our most challenging and largest in scope.
This is a program that happens several times a year where we give large chunks of the organization a period of time to develop a project, a day to work on the project as a team and then present it out to the larger group. This program has had thousands of Lilly employees engage in projects that needed to be worked on but otherwise would never have had the resources applied. What really makes me feel good about it is the commitment from others who’ve volunteered to lead the program and participate; people from all over the enterprise who see the significance of innovation to our corporation and are doing something about it.
LK: Who do you admire today in terms of innovative expertise and execution?
KS: The Gore Corporation seems to be doing something right. They’re innovative, they get things done and their approach is low on management and high on personal commitment – innovation and inspiration at the personal level. And the freedom at the heart of it requires the type of engagement that all companies say they want from their employees. It works well for Gore and could possibly work well for others.
LK: What do you enjoy most about pursuing innovation? What, if anything, disturbs you about it?
KS: Well, I do worry that maintaining a balance between efficiency and innovation will continue to be a huge challenge. Especially for large corporations that are increasingly managing themselves for the short term and thinking less and less about the long term. This simply doesn’t support the less structured, less predictable activities associated with innovation. And it’s not only the final act of innovation, it’s the planning and the cultural willingness to try new approaches or give up on old methods that no longer work…Change is hard. And we all need to be willing to change, to experiment, and to adapt to the new reality.
LK: Ken, where do you go for inspiration or ideas?
KS: The people I work with. When I have challenges related to my work or a situation I see ahead I’ll bring it up with the people on my Innovation team or the people on one of the other project teams I work with and ask them what they would do…It often turns out I’m not the first to have this situation and they are often more than willing to help me out.
LK: Is there anyone you’d most enjoy discussing innovation with? If so who might that be and what would you like to ask or tell them?
KS: There are two people I think have really interesting and powerful views of innovation. David Murray, who wrote the book Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others, describes how ideas from one situation can be applied to another situation to provide a new, powerful solution. He shows how it’s done, taking ideas from one industry or situation and applying it somewhere else. This not only has the effect of making innovation easier, but it allows people to use proven techniques with outcomes that are easier to understand.
Another person is Soren Kaplan, who wrote Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs. His book is really about serendipity and how you prepare for it and use it. Instead of being upset by surprises, we need to stop and understand what they are, why it surprised us, and how we can use it. If we are too focused on efficiency, we tend to miss these situations that could lead us down new and potentially profitable paths.
They would both be very interesting people to discuss innovation with and their approaches to solving challenges would be worth understanding a little better….and the way they wrote their books makes them seem as though it would be fun to spend some time with them and just discuss life in general.
LK: What did you want to be growing up? What path did your career follow to bring you to where you are today?
KS: I always loved science…finding the answers to questions and the chance to teach others. My career path was pretty straight forward until late 2004 when I was asked to be part of a new Lean Six Sigma team that Lilly was preparing to kick off. I found that many of the skills I learned as a chemist were transferable and that the process allowed me to use my team building and improvisational skills to help teams develop solutions. The best part of this role was that I got to learn from other parts of the business and that innovation was truly valued, almost required, to help these teams find solutions. This has led me to other interesting positions in the corporation and to a point where the interesting positions, where ambiguity is the defining quality, are held for me. Lots of fun.
LK: As has been our time together. Ken, thank you very much for your time and perspective.
KS: Thank you Lou. It was fun.
image credit: Ken Savin; Copyright Lou Killeffer August 2013 All rights reserved. Five Mile River Marketing, LLC
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Lou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.