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Killing the canary - Probing the innovation mindset

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Early 2916, I joined a Global German Industrial corporation to help jumpstart their innovation lab and operate some intrapreneur programs. I was carefully integrating new team members to make the office a great place to work. We have been growing fast, increasing our workload and today my role gives me less chance to promote and support collaborative initiatives.

I refer to a great article from Stephanie Mitrano: Often overlooked or deemed too sensitive, culture canaries are those employees who could be great pulse takers in your organisation.”

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Our environment is continuously changing, we lost the people who created the innovation lab in the first place and today, like the canary in the mine, I sense that everyone is waiting for a new mindset to emerge. To understand the cause of that sensation, I have been reading several books during the summer period and it is Loonshots from Safi Bahcall which brought me some important learnings. With enough distance, looking at the last years journey, everything makes sense.

When I joined the innovation lab, 4 years ago, it was a flat organization of 10 people. A year later with over 20 people in the team.. and our unit manager started to create some reporting line. We had two missions, 1 - transform the company toward more entrepreneurial thinking and 2 - generate new business. Following Safi Bahcall logic, those two missions could be run by two subunits of 10 or more employees, large enough to give team autonomy and purpose, and managers to lead as gardeners and remove the politics of the hierarchical ladder. Instead, there was some pressure to create more reporting line with 6 subunits with small teams of 3-4 people with sometime some hierarchy between them. I believe that HR and senior management where more confortable to find a structure similar to other business units from our corporation. In reality, last year, during an audit, an external consultant who saw our org chart was commenting that it was made for 100 people, not 20.

The consequence, explained on Safi Bahcall blog, is that our organization incentive became highly driven by politics rather than by projects and programs.

Over the years, I received recognition from project teams, stakeholders and peers but surprisingly not linked to career growth. I accepted it, being part of a flat organization logic and getting other personal satisfaction for developing some of the great intrapreneurial programs in the industry and bringing many concepts to our portfolio.

In the more recent years, we had a sister unit, the New Business Incubator, with very efficient project centric organization. The structure was quite flat with a pool of project teams working in synergies and a management office supporting them with some operations. This model was simple and therefore well managed.

Beginning of 2020, we have decided to merge the Innovation Lab and the New Business Incubator. We have end up with a 75+ employee organization with 6 units having each sometime 3-4 subunits of 3 or 4 employees each. This has created organisation silos, having more than 20 subunits with very different goals and mindset. Here, we definitively have lost a joint mindset and today project incentives seem to be less attractive. Here the initial flat logic mindset doesn't work anymore. It became more difficult to onboard colleagues in joint goal ... with collaboration seen as interfering with reporting lines and colleagues being more and more looking at incentives to progress their career rather than achieving great things together. While we are very performing and focused on the whole chain of innovation, this is counter-productive for collaboration and has a possible impact on our employee engagement: people start leaving and some other are reducing on projects to increase on politics.

So, can we evolve the structure slowly (its a transformation!) and improve the innovation mindset via collaboration?

It is time to revive the canary. This requires dedicated time and ressource to work on collaboration and continuous improvement of the organisation. In addition to this fresh oxygen, sparing energy is key. It is possible by focussing on only few things:

  1. by working on maturing an innovative concept and demonstrate it's incentive is more rewarding than politics within our corporate innovation lab

  2. by supporting only on few but very impactful collaboration activities across subunits (i.e. support our iterative working model between exploration/exploitation on testing business assumptions )

  3. by starting out of office side external activities of blogging and business angel with incentive directly linked to personal contributions

And what in the future? At the time of the last reorg. in December 2019, I proposed something that made our top management smiling a lot - I was proposing to create an “innovation lab within the innovation lab“ called the Singularity.

A small commando driven by non-hierarchical incentives with mission to protect the risky moonshots (loonshots) and the exceptional innovators - in other words ... the A-Team of innovation who loves when a plan come together.

I am not sure if it is the vocation of an industry company to host an innovation unit similar to a mini-DARPA? But it is definitively one model to consider for the future: Financial Times - 14 Feb 2020 - Why moonshots elude the timid of heart !

This is also why, reading Safi Bahcall's Loonshots book this summer, not only entertained me but also confirmed ... a model and mindset for innovation lab .. that are worth to implement.


Order a copy of the book

Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

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