What is your background and current role?
Currently, I am responsible for innovation in ROCKWOOL Group. I am a mechanical engineer by education with an MBA in business development. I have always been interested in the clash between technology and the market. There is an inherent conflict that intrigues me, and I am driven by bridging technology, market and people. In my view, innovation is all about people: without people behind ideas, nothing happens.
What is your definition of innovation and how do you work with it?
I apply the definition of innovation as being about “transforming learning into value”. All three elements; transformation, learning and value must be present for innovation to happen. That innovation is about creating value and transformation is obvious to most, but learning might be a bit surprising to some. We focus a lot on learning in the way we run our innovation processes. I see innovation as being much more about people than anything; it is through people that we learn and make things happen.
We use the Stage-Gate model which might seem old-school to some, but we apply it in a different way. Instead of having a linear approach to the process and focus on what it takes to pass each gate, we focus on the learnings achieved during the stages. There are clear topic areas in each stage, and the teams work on what they learn during the stages, rather than meeting requirements for each gate. The gate-meetings are project-specific meetings with the right people onboard; those receiving the idea and paying for the resources. The focus is on checking if everything is going as planned, whether the scope is still right and relevant, and if it is still worth spending time and money on. In my experience, strict gate criteria only end up killing ideas and demotivating creative people. Our core philosophy is thus that we would rather stop a wild idea in due time, than awaken dead ideas going nowhere.
Which challenges in relation to innovation do you experience and how do you handle them?
The transition from idea to product can be challenging, especially in a de-central organisation like ours where the country organisations work independently and in different ways. Innovators tend to get disappointed when meeting production and sales people, because they might not see the value right away, or because it does not work as expected due to local differences in operations. Implementation thus becomes more about people than technical details. To mitigate this, we spend a lot of time maintaining an ongoing dialogue with sales and production, and involving them early on so that they understand the process and are ready to receive the solution. We have quarterly meetings where we present upcoming solutions, and they voice their challenges. Finally, we make sure that there is support from at least one business unit at the third gate in our process.
I also see a clash between technology push and market pull. The market requests solutions that they can imagine and that solve existing needs, and we must cater to that. But we also need to be able come up with ideas that the market has not seen yet. To accommodate this, we have reserved a budget for “under the radar”-activities, which means that all employees can use up to 10% of their time on this. We then reserve 5% of our budget for people to further explore these ideas, e.g. build prototypes. This has been a great success and some of our biggest successes have come through this.
Can you mention an example of a success story?
Our new spinner is a good example of an innovation success story. It is actually an idea that was conceived a while ago, but we did not have the budget to back it and top management was against it from the beginning. Instead, the innovators got the permission to build a prototype and then spent the summer in a camping van using an oven from our prototype stock. By the end of the summer they had a working prototype, and today we have a new production line based on this. A true “garage-project” driven by a technology push that meets a need in the market.
How are you organized and which skills does it require to manage an innovation unit?
Previously, we were organized more traditionally with an organisation that mirrored our production, but that does not work well for innovation projects which typically require a combination of competences. Today, we are organised in a matrix that matches strategic focus areas with different professional areas, and we have managers responsible for the professional groups and managers responsible for strategic areas. This allows us to be more flexible and combine the different types of resources needed for the specific project.
A key to our success is the motivation of people, and we ensure this by letting them be part of defining what we should focus on, a bottom-up approach, combined with swift decision-making from management and easy access to resources. We see our colleagues around the organisation as an endless source of ideas and a good determinant of when the timing is right and the market is ready for our ideas. It is thus crucial for us that this motivation of people is established, and we actually did an investigation a while ago that showed that with more motivated employees, you will get more done (in terms of hours spent on projects).
In terms of managing people, I find that an important skill is to adjust your behavior. In one setting, you will need to act as an idea and team coach, and in others, you will need to plan a project in detail. Success is not about controlling everything and finding all solutions yourself, but having the right people with you and enabling them to come up with the solutions. There is an enormous complexity in working with innovation, and as a manager you must be comfortable with swapping between different tasks and change roles accordingly. Further, it is important to realise that one person cannot master all competences needed to succeed with innovation. It requires a shift in competences during the course of a project, and we must be prepared to make the changes needed, when needed.
In general, I find that innovation inherently implies a tension that we as managers must live with and find a balance. It can create conflict, but it is also what makes it exciting and appealing to work with.