A change programme is easy to start — but difficult to maintain. How do you keep things going when the initial enthusiasm has faded?
Nothing will keep going unless you build a proper framework for innovation, say Stefano Brusoni, professor of technology and innovation management at ETH Zurich, and Ben Bensaou, INSEAD’s professor of technology management. That means hiring people, creating feedback loops, incentivising middle managers to facilitate innovation — and making sure you make the process diverse and widely accessible.
These are the seven things to consider.
1/ Create (and resource) the innovation engine
When Bensaou is asked by boards and executive teams how they can give their innovation ambitions a better chance of success, he tends to defer to a rather succinct answer: “Take it seriously.”
Making clear, bold statements about your investment in innovation can send an important signal, as can appointing a C-suite executive to lead the efforts. And putting serious money into the mix can go a long way to showing how, well, seriously you take your stated ambitions.
But you still need more. Unless you build a lasting structure for innovation, all these things will remain superficial gestures.
The whole executive team were made accountable for innovation, but it didn’t stop there
“You can’t just go around evangelising and advocating for innovation, without building the engine,” says Bensaou. “You need to create a protected and fully legitimised space where anybody can innovate, and you’ve got to create the resource, infrastructure and support to enable it to happen and sustain.”
Bensaou cites the example of global pharmacology and life sciences company, Bayer, as detailed in his new book Built To Innovate. Notwithstanding its long history of scientific achievements and a respected R&D function, Bayer’s leadership recognised that innovation required more than a call to arms from the board.
“The whole executive team were made accountable for innovation, but it didn’t stop there,” explains Bensaou. “Bayer sought out 80 senior managers representing all global businesses and functions, and appointed them as ambassadors, charged with directly supporting the executive and investing most of their time on the critical middle management layer of the organisation.
“On top of this, they built a formidable support structure for the mid-management community — they trained and certified 1,000 innovation coaches across the company, all embedded and activated in local markets. And they appointed local innovation co-ordinators as communication and governance points-of-focus.”
For Bensaou, Bayer stands out as something of an exemplar for going beyond the rhetoric and truly institutionalising innovation.
💡 Ask yourself: have you invested in and equipped a network of people to help truly activate innovation in your organisation… or is this something you’re missing?
2/ Start with base level questions about your current culture
Brusoni uses a surfing metaphor for innovation and change. Above the surface, where we see changes in tides and new waves breaking, is our external environment — often fast-paced, highly visible, and dramatic. Below the surface is our culture — quite invisible, typically slower paced, and more tacit in its nature.
“We all have to acknowledge and understand that change occurs at both levels, but that change occurs at very different speeds,” says Brusoni. “The different pace of change is what creates friction.
“We need some collective sense-making about where those frictions are likely to become visible, what kind of waves are going to be generated, and therefore what kind of behaviours we need to deploy to be able to ride those waves.”
Brusoni argues that executives have to start by accepting that these two dimensions are connected, but different. To step back and reflect on the fundamentals of their organisation. What are the implicit assumptions about what is appropriate behaviour, and what isn’t? And while these may seem rudimentary questions, they can often be overlooked — either leaving executives operating under an assumption of being on the same page, or leaving some executives not having thought through the potential for friction between external and internal change.
“It has to start with a reflection on how you define your organisation’s culture now, and on that basis begin the discussion about what it might be possible to change or evolve.”
💡 Ask yourself: did you miss, or would there be value in reconvening, this discussion?
3/ Use diversity as a trigger for self-reflection
Over the last five years, diversity and inclusion has taken on new life, far from its origins where it too often languished as an HR tick-box exercise or a debate about quotas.
Today, smart organisations and smart executives recognise how potent diverse ideas, voices and participation can be. But one area in which they have been slower to have an impact is innovation.
“Valuing diversity is only slowly emerging as a powerful trigger for self-reflection and self-assessment,” explains Brusoni. “It’s important to think about how different organisations do what you do. To think about how different people interpret their role within your organisation.”
Reflecting on diversity is really crucial to keep thinking about the fundamental question of why we do things in this way, and not any other way
Brusoni sees diversity as “core to the whole future-proofing discussion”. This isn’t a discussion about content (i.e. what kind of programming languages, adoption of new technologies) but about process (how and why we do what we do).
“The conversation needs to be about how we organise for change, both in the environment but also within the boundaries of the organisation. And reflecting on diversity is really crucial to keep thinking about the fundamental question of why we do things in this way, and not any other way.”
Diversity can also help when the company doesn’t feel like it is facing a “burning platform” — when there is no consensus about an urgent need for change. Businesses might be doing just well enough that there is no impetus to do things differently. Diversity could bring in a radically different view and show why change is necessary.
💡 Ask yourself: are you getting a rich variety of perspectives on your innovation priorities? Have you embraced the spirit of your D&I efforts in your innovation approach?
4/ Give permission and make other people jealous
Don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness — it's a well-trodden (and often useful) saying, designed to justify less bureaucratic and faster decision making. Bensaou has an alternative take, however.
“It’s not that I disagree with the original adage,” he explains. “But in the context of encouraging people to innovate at all levels of an organisation, and given that the expression tends to be targeted at front-line employees, it seems to say that innovating is bad… something which could lead to a negative outcome and a negative consequence.
“Instead, I encourage people to target middle managers, and instead say give permission and make other people jealous. If your team comes up with really interesting ideas, the word will get around. Other managers will come to you and ask how you’re nurturing such an innovative department.”
Middle managers, advocated Bensaou, should be focused and incentivised to create a culture where their team is actively taking up the innovation mantle, and using that permission to innovate to make a difference. After all, it’s your front-line employees who are closest to your customers, competitors and the realities of the experience you deliver today.
💡 Ask yourself: are you creating healthy competition amongst your managers to get their front-line teams contributing to your innovation ambitions?
5/ Build feedback routines
One of the advantages of “business as usual” is that it tends to involve short-term horizons. There’s something of an immediacy to it, and feedback tends to flow promptly. When it comes to innovation, however, time horizons often lean to the longer-term, and an associated absence of feedback.
“In the short-term we receive, very rapidly, feedback about our choices and our behaviour,” says Brusoni. “And we like feedback. People adapt their behaviour on the basis of feedback, so when it is absent, it adds to the built-in emotional response to change, which can make us very defensive.”
The challenge, argues Brusoni, is to build a system of feedback which enables people to bridge the gap between the short and the long-term. He points to the importance of skunkworks, prototypes and experiments in helping to make longer-term innovation agendas more tangible and immediate — and yielding feedback.
By using a series of small, tangible, practical things, we can help people to develop a habit of seeing change as a viable option
“A very powerful way to engage people in a conversation about change is to get them thinking more scientifically,” he adds. “Using specific hypotheses and making small predictions about the impact of our actions, and then finding ways to test these on a small scale, can help to break down the long-term into smaller chunks.
“Do something. Generate data. Observe what happened. And then adapt our behaviour.”
Brusoni says this approach can be applied at a tactical level through prototyping, for example, but can also be applied to strategic conversations about, for instance, how your organisation will respond to a change initiative.
“By using a series of small, tangible, practical things, we can help people to develop a habit of seeing change as a viable option. This lays the foundations for embracing larger-scale change, when necessary.”
💡 Ask yourself: what small predictions can your teams make to allow for small-scale testing?
6/ Recognise change anxiety — even in the agitators
Most people recognise that change and uncertainty can be unnerving, or even overwhelming. It’s why successful innovation so often rests on internal engagement and narratives, as much as it does technology or product.
It’s also why, when it comes to innovation, it’s easy to gravitate towards people who self-identify as “change agents”. The agitators, the explorers, the entrepreneurs, the proponents of change and “the new”. They’re the ones you want on an innovation project because there’s less of a barrier overcome.
But it would be a mistake to assume that their apparent comfort with change or enthusiasm for a different future means they’re free from anxiety.
“Even the antagonists struggle,” says Brusoni. “Research shows that, on average, they will still experience negative emotions while going through change.
“These are people who may be very good at understanding the need to change or explore a different future from a cognitive point-of-view, but they will most likely still experience some anxiety about choices and change. They may be very good at overcoming it or inhibiting it, but it’s still there.”
It’s important, therefore, to not overlook the needs of this audience. To not mistake their cognitive, rational grasp of the necessity of change for utter fearlessness or infallibility.
💡 Ask yourself: do you provide support and communication to your agitators and explorers, or are you neglecting them?
7/ Look for innovation in unexpected places
The idea of democratising innovation, or adopting full transparency across an organisation, may fill some leaders with dread. Innovation, after all, carries the promise of competitive advantage and future growth. Why would you let anyone and everyone loose on your innovation agenda?
Bensaou advocates for tapping into the tacit knowledge and innovation potential of all of an organisation’s employees. Why, he asks, would executives overlook such a rich resource?
He again cites Bayer’s work on open innovation as a leading example of the benefits of an open, transparent and participative approach to innovation.
“Bayer launched a digital platform in support of collaborative innovation called WeSolve,” Bensaou says. “More than 40,000 people have participated in this platform, and they have tackled over 200 challenges.
“But what’s most interesting is that two-thirds of the best ideas for innovation challenges came from internal teams that were different to the team in which the challenge originated. This is a testament to the value of open innovation.”
💡 Ask yourself: are you overlooking your closest and most cost-effective source of opportunities, solutions and innovation?
TL;DR? Key takeaways…
- Create (and resource) the innovation engine — do you have an intentional, educated innovation network?
- Start with very base-level conversations about how your culture operates now
- Consider diversity — are you getting a rich variety of perspectives on your innovation efforts?
- Give staff permission to innovate and make other departments jealous of their success
- Build feedback routines — could hypotheses and small predictions help bridge the gap between short and long-term?
- Even your most innovative people will be anxious about change. make sure to support them.
- Look for innovation in unexpected places — are you overlooking your best innovation resource?
Thomas Brown is Sifted’s Corporate Innovation Reporter, and a freelance journalist, award-winning author and consultant, specialising in digital transformation, innovation, organisational culture and consumer behaviour. You’ll find him tweeting from @ThinkStuff.
Stefano Brusoni is Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at the D-MTEC, having joined in 2011. Previously he was Associate Professor of Applied Economics at Bocconi University. He received his PhD in Science and Technology Policy studies from the University of Sussex (UK) at SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit).
Ben M. Bensaou is a Professor of Technology Management and Professor of Asian Business and Comparative Management at INSEAD, based in Japan. He served as Dean of Executive Education in 2018–2020, and in addition to his academic career at INSEAD has held academic and scholarly roles at Harvard Business School, the Wharton School of Management, and the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. He received his PhD in Management from MIT Sloan School of Management.