There is a common misconception that innovation happens when one person has a eureka moment or significant amounts of capital are invested in R&D. In reality, though, innovation is a much more complex process. Many companies set up dedicated innovation labs to improve their chances of creating new products and services. But while people do make innovation happen, there is growing recognition that it is not something that can be left to chance or manufactured by a siloed team of “innovators.”
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Bringing together people with complementary expertise
Take the incredible innovation success story behind the recent Covid-19 vaccines: Billions of people around the world have been inoculated against the deadly virus in record time, thanks to the creation of entirely new medicines.
“We watched as human ingenuity solved problems that we hadn’t even pondered just 12 months ago,” wrote Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla1 in March 2021. “At Pfizer, this included inventing new thermal shippers to keep our vaccine at ultra-cold temperatures while in transit and rooms filled with innovative new equipment that didn’t even exist on March 11, 2020.” Bourla credits the combination of brilliant scientific minds, digital technology and new ways of working with the creation of the vaccine, and highlights the importance of collaboration between a broad range of stakeholders.
Germany-based cleaning company Kärcher also puts people at the heart of its innovation strategy.2 This includes getting multidisciplinary teams to collaborate to develop new business ideas, working with start-ups on new projects and encouraging individuals from outside the company to submit their ideas. It seems to be working: Kärcher says approximately 90% of all its products are five years old or newer and it recorded its highest ever turnover, EUR2.72 billion, in 2020.
“Part of a company’s DNA needs to be that it continuously strives for innovation,” confirms Fabian Bernhard, Professor of Management at EDHEC Business School. “Even if business is going well, you need to be thinking about how the market will change. Innovation is not a one-time thing – continuous investment in people is critical.”
But how can companies ensure such behaviour gets embedded in company culture over the long term?
Creating a new management culture
Strong leadership – and more specifically, new ways of practicing leadership – is important in overcoming one of the biggest challenges that companies face when getting different teams to collaborate: resistance to change. Here, Fabian Bernhard thinks giving people more ownership and control over specific projects or tasks is effective. “The best strategy against ‘resistance to change’ is to alter people's perceptions on things,” he says. But it requires a renewed managerial culture.
This is the choice Saint-Gobain has made. In recent years, to ensure it can keep up with the rapidly changing and highly competitive markets in which it operates, the company has profoundly renewed its management methods, adopting new ways of working based on trust, empowerment and collaboration. This strategy aims to improve management styles, develop more openness, foster an entrepreneurial spirit and increase the opportunities for training.
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Paving the way for a cultural change
Opening the way for cultural change, fostering a spirit of innovation among all employees, and exploring new ways of being and acting require a shorter, faster decision-making process and managers who are committed to moving their teams towards greater autonomy and responsibility for results. That means developing a culture of collaboration and joint success, led by managers who have been trained to minimize the hierarchy within their teams and share collective results.
Fostering innovation also means empowering employees … and trusting they know better. At Saint-Gobain, for instance, a range of apps have been designed for on-site operators, allowing them to be autonomous in declaring malfunctions or maintenance needs on their machines. As a result they are responsible for their machines and can provide the company with acute insights on how to improve processes or even imagine new methods.
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But this also requires the development of a "feedback culture," one with the goal of giving continuous input instead of waiting for an annual review to evaluate projects. This way, employees can get real-time feedback from their manager on each action taken and also share directly with each other.
As these leading companies demonstrate, it takes a village to innovate successfully. Coming up with new products and services requires that a complex mix of people, technology and process come together. And creating the right culture is crucial. As business leaders look to build resilience for whatever the future brings, they must champion innovation and ensure it becomes part of their organisation’s DNA.
1. Albert Bourla reflects on the one year anniversary of the covid-19 pandemic (Pfizer)
2. Moving forward: Kärcher is opening up new technologies and exciting business models
Photos credits: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock // APChanel/Shutterstock