“Fate favors the curious.” That’s the mantra of Babak Forutanpour, a software engineer who, during his time at Qualcomm, founded and launched a successful, company-wide, employee-run innovation program called FLUX, or Forward Looking User Experience.
Over the course of six years, at least 10 percent of employees were involved in the program. Qualcomm employees captured 70 patents pending or granted, coming out to about 1 idea per month during that period.
We interviewed Forutanpour to gain greater insight into how consumer-focused skillsets and principles can grow within an organization, especially one that previously only relied on its own technological capabilities to innovate. As authors Barry Jaruzelski, Volker Staack, Brad Goehle and editor Rob Norton write in their Global Innovation 1000 study findings, “Proven Paths to Innovation Success,” companies such as Qualcomm can be classified as Technology Drivers.
Such Technology Drivers are those that leverage their R&D to drive both breakthrough innovation and incremental change. “They hope and expect that by following the imperatives implied by their discoveries, they will naturally meet the known and unknown needs of their customers (1).”
Forutanpour has been awarded more than 90 patents during his time at Qualcomm, but his greatest contribution may be how he helped other employees cultivate their innovation skill sets and capabilities.
Fostering Creative Thinking Across an Organization
When the FLUX program started to scale, Forutanpour saw how a consistent number of people were leaving the program. From there, a lesson was learned over time: “If you see something is not working, if you see that people are coming to the brainstorming session but dropping out, if you have a 50 percent or higher attrition rate, which we had, ask them why they left.” And he did.
Forutanpour discovered that many people simply did not enjoy brainstorming sessions. They loved the camaraderie, but preferred things that were concrete and had a clear path. Ideation and thinking about the future were not something they were interested in doing.
Forutanpour saw how important it was to get people to realize that company-wide innovation program didn’t always have to be related to the “next big idea”—sometimes it was about one foot in front of the other, and small steps towards big gains in innovation. It was also more about teaching people to be creative problem solvers – what is the need and how do we solve it?
“It doesn’t always have to be all in, or ‘go big or go home.’ It can be: 8 people in a room, and over the course of several years, it turns into 3000 people being involved.”
Seeing that not everyone wanted to brainstorm, employees created four other programs in order to help employees grow their creative intelligence.
A Lesson in Feedback & Pivoting
Forutanpour credits this lesson in pivoting as part of the reason the program was also able to scale and be sustainable over time, especially given the company’s standard approach to innovation.
Another critical decision came when Forutanpour sat down with the CEO of Qualcomm, Steve Mollenkopf, to decide the best strategy for the program as it continued to grow.
Both Mollenkopf and Forutanpour agreed that they wanted FLUX to stay as grassroots as possible. Mollenkopf fully supported the program, but also knew keeping it grassroots had many benefits. Keeping it volunteer-based was an early decision that Forutanpour credits to helping the program continue to gain momentum.
On Working with Other Ongoing Innovation Programs
Qualcomm also had other, ongoing innovation programs running alongside the FLUX program. One program, for example, allowed employees to submit ideas, with a reward being given to selected ideas. These ideas were often more about business ideas, or ideas that could add value to an existing line of products/services.
“FLUX was more about, novel and useful and based on real needs and pain points, human-centered design if you will,” rather than pitching a new business idea or business plan with a potential reward in return.
But Forutanpour is quick to point out that having multiple, ongoing innovation programs can work to a company’s advantage.
“It’s like salt and pepper, you may want to add a little bit of both to a meal,” said Forutanpour, “and that’s one of benefits that we had at Qualcomm: we did both, and we got great results from both.”
On one side, you might have a program that helps you capture ideas so that the best ideas can bubble to the top. “You can get great ideas from that source. You also need the other side, which is, let’s just see where the discussions go, because innovation by definition is messy and you have to try multiple approaches in order to find something that’s going to stick. You sometime need to engineer serendipity, or create a little friction.”
Measuring the ROI of an Innovation Program
One of the ways Forutanpour and others can point towards the ROI of FLUX was how employees captured 70 patents pending or granted over a period of 6 years.
During those six years, one of the ways they measured if FLUX was making a difference was membership: 10 percent of the entire company at one point was on the mailing list, or 3,000 people, were involved in the program.
They were also one of the first teams to harness the power of contextual awareness when FLUX started. Years later, there was an entire R&D department dedicated to contextual awareness.
Beyond just the brainstorming sessions, the other programs created with FLUX also added value to the company culture—something that Forutanpour admits is difficult to measure. “One thing that we provided, was getting employees together on a monthly basis where we would share cool videos that people would submit…We would watch these technical videos together and discuss them and learn both from the subject matter that’s being shared, but we’d also learn from each other.” Another program involved a better way of sharing trip reports, which helped colleagues know what everyone was working on.
“When we measure results, part of is the patents, part of it is the prototypes or inspiring R&D teams to commercialize features, but also part of it is what is it’s immeasurable, which is the culture: the emails you get from an employee from another continent saying ‘Thank you. FLUX provides me with a creative outlet. It is the meeting I look forward to the most on my busy calendar.’”
Forutanpour says how those touch points between team members trickled over to positively add to the company’s culture in countless ways. When the Human Resources Department would highlight the FLUX program during new employee orientation, it showed how the program was starting to be used for hiring and retention reasons, reflecting the positive culture at Qualcomm.
Developing an Innovation Mindset
With all the coverage of company’s today with “ 20 percent time” for employees—policies in which employees’ are given 20 percent of their time to work on creative or innovative projects—the FLUX program shows what just 2 percent time can do. “Look at how much we accomplished, with such little investment,” Forutanpour said.
The key really is not the 2 percent or the 20 percent, but teaching people how to problem solve, no matter a company’s underlying approach to innovation.
Forutanpour said it would be great to see a model with a combination of dedicated time for innovation projects, similar to the philosophy adopted by Google, and a scenario in which employees are also motivated to pursue innovative activities on their own time.
Either way, he has one last piece of advice for other dreamers in large companies: you may not know the answers, and you may not know if your project will succeed, but if something bothers you, go change it.
It’s more important to be curious and ask questions, rather than starting with a solution and looking for a need.
“If you see something that can get done, and you would enjoy changing it or you would enjoy building it, then just go do it. You never know what’s going to happen. You could make a difference: I was just an engineer in the camera group with an idea, and the next you know, it grew big and helped us solve latent user needs.”
About Babak Forutanpour
Babak Forutanpour has more than 22 years experience as a software engineer designing, developing and managing technical systems that delight. Forutanpour is the founder of Don’t Dream Alone a company that helps firms fuel a culture of innovation. His research at Qualcomm has been awarded over 90 patents, and his work as founder of employee-run innovation program FLUX has been recognized by former and current CEOs as having made a positive impact. Forutanpour served as VFX Technical Director at Disney and Warner Bros. for 4 Hollywood feature films. He recently led a successful Kickstarter that landed a deal with a Shark from ABC’s hit show “Shark Tank.”
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1) Jaruzelski, Barry, Volker Staack, and Brad Goehle. “Global Innovation 1000: Proven Paths to Innovation Success.” Ed. Rob Norton. Strategy Business 2014. See also https://www.strategyand.pwc.com/media/file/Proven-Paths-to-Innovation-Success.pdf