Who owns innovation?


April 2nd, 2015

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shutterstock_133872632It’s a question that usually receives a blank response. Yet, pick up any business magazine and you will invariably find multiple articles on the strategic importance of innovation for a company’s growth.

I have mulled over the question for a number of years, ever since I started the Entheo Network in 2006. Before that, I was an Innovation Director in a large research company responsible for working with big brands like Coca-Cola, American Express and Nokia to develop concepts for new products and services.

The lack of creative ideas and solutions was often not the problem. It was the lack of internal processes and culture that supported innovation that was missing.

We often look upon the children of Silicon Valley, the Facebooks and Googles of this world with envy as innovation seems so natural to the way they work. But what if you work for a large organisation and have legacy systems that are often hard to change?

One of the best examples I have come across, of a large organisation which went on the journey of transformation around an innovation agenda, is the story of white goods manufacturer Whirlpool.

Back in the 1990s, faced with increasing competition and pressure from shareholders, Whirlpool’s leaders created the vision of a business that would encourage “innovation from everyone, everywhere”.

This meant innovation across the board — products, customer touch points, business methods with suppliers and vendors as well as its overall strategic focus.

New ways of working included enrolling every salaried employee in an online course on business innovation, training 600 innovation mentors, setting aside a substantial share of capital spending every year for projects that were truly innovative, and requiring every product-development plan to contain a sizeable component of new-to-market innovation.

Also, one sure way to put innovation at the top of the agenda was to make it a large component of top management’s long-term bonus plan.

We often use this example as a case study in workshops to encourage participants to think through how Whirlpool made this transition and what they can learn and do differently in their own organisations.

This elicits a collective sigh of relief as, more often than not, they know they are unlikely to be the next Google, and to attempt to build a Google-style culture which has grown out of particular values and conditions would be a long road to frustration.

The Whirlpool story is compelling as it demonstrates that with the right strategic direction, commitment and resources, even large, often bureaucratic organisations can make innovation more than just a buzzword.

Who owns innovation in your organisation?

natalie-email-imageNatalie Turner is an associate at Roffey Park and the Founder and CEO of The Entheo Network (www.natalie-turner.net), a global innovation and leadership company headquartered in Singapore. She works with Singaporean and international companies to help build the skills and capabilities for sustainable innovation.