How product managers can make innovation everyone’s job
Today we are talking about how we design organizations for innovation. Joining us is Dr. Ben Bensaou. He is Professor of Technology Management and Professor of Asian Business and Comparative Management at INSEAD. He has also served in roles at Harvard, Wharton, and Haas business schools. His research centers on innovation and how organizations innovate. His recent book, Built to Innovate, shares a proven system for building innovation into an organization’s DNA.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:49] What research led to the innovation framework you talk about in your book?
The research started with my teaching and consulting about 20 years ago. I saw traditional companies transformed to be very innovative. For example, the CEO of a traditional company making fabrics for tire companies transformed his company into an innovative solution and services provider, not only to the auto industry but also to new markets in construction and aerospace. I wanted to share that experience of seeing an innovative engine built from the ground up in a traditional company.
[5:24] What are your thoughts on designing innovation into organizations when many business leaders have spent years learning how to perfect execution?
There’s nothing wrong with execution; it’s necessary for every organization. However, an execution engine tends to stop innovative behavior. Organizations often rely on specialists in R&D to innovate, but innovation is the responsibility of everyone. Particularly, we tend to ignore the important role of middle managers. Bayer, the pharmaceutical and life sciences company, recognized this role in the strategy they developed to make innovation the responsibility and job of everyone in the organization. They trained senior managers to train middle managers in innovation, and then the middle managers trained their teams. Bayer also provided coaches to train the teams, making it easy for middle managers to engage their teams in innovation. They also incentivized middle managers and teams to increase their innovative capability and contribution.
Bayer also created an innovation information system where employees can send their ideas. To prevent the system from getting overloaded, they have local innovation coordinators who read the suggestions and send feedback.
They also use a system called WeSolve where anyone in the company can post questions or problems and anyone else in the company can contribute solutions or ideas. More than 40,000 people participated, and surprisingly the people who provide solutions are usually not from the same division as the person who presented the problem.
These systems give people permission to innovate and create a culture where anyone can innovate.
[16:50] Where should innovation live in an organization? Should you start with an innovation group or push innovation to all employees?
In the end, the CEO and board are responsible for innovation, but everyone has a contribution to make. Organizations need an infrastructure and process to coordinate ideas. As a typical example, a subcommittee of the board is responsible for innovation, and they give permission for innovation to the whole organization and convince and train middle managers. Once the middle managers understand the importance of innovation, the organization creates a separate unit of coaches who train and support people in innovation. At least one innovation coach is assigned to each unit. The organization gives the frontline employees time to spend with customers and use the tools they’ve learned from the coaches. In this infrastructure, innovation lives everywhere in the organization. Local coordinators pick up ideas from frontline innovators and have a network to move those ideas to innovation committees that culminate to the committee on the board.
[20:25] What are your three processes for innovating?
Because the traditional execution engine gets in the way of innovation, you need to create a separate but parallel innovation engine, which includes three processes: creation, integration, and reframing.
Creation is how the organization creates new ideas. Frontline people play a major role because they face customers and can detect their needs, demands and problems.
Integration connects the innovative ideas throughout the organization into a social network that builds innovation capability. It’s a system that selects and moves ideas to decision makers faster than going through a hierarchy. This system can include innovation ambassadors, local innovation coordinators, and coaches.
Reframing is reimagining the strategy of tomorrow, rethinking the strategy of today, and challenging assumptions the company is making about who they are and the value they are creating.
[24:24] How can product managers take action to help their organizations be more innovative?
Innovation doesn’t have to start at the top of the company. It can start anywhere. People are very innovative; they create new ideas every day. The problem is often employees don’t have permission to innovate. Middle managers can encourage innovation by creating space and time for people to interact with customers, and they can connect their people who have ideas with other people across the organization.
People need three things to be able to innovate:
When someone brings you an idea, say thank you. They’re taking a risk and giving you a gift by telling you their idea. Create an atmosphere where people are excited to innovate.
Action Guide: Put the information Ben shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“Don’t ask for permission; make others jealous.” – Ben Bensaou
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.