For Stefan Ermtraud, global innovation manager at Stabilus the key to the success of a newly started innovation initiative are strong connections and communications
I am a global innovation manager, which is a new role here in Stabilus. I started after we ran our first global innovation challenge in 2018. After a successful challenge collecting numerous ideas and engaging people across our organisation, we convinced our new CEO that we needed a process and toolbox for innovation. I came from a job in operations, I am an electrician by education, and got an opportunity to try out this very new role. My strengths lie in communications, and my manager realized that to succeed with the innovation challenge, a person with strong communication skills and good connections was needed. A large share of our workforce is blue collar workers that are not used to working with innovation, so for them to participate, we needed to get out and talk to them. I was part of a leadership program at that point of time, and being able to talk with both managers and blue collars turned out to be critical for the success of the challenge.
The global innovation challenge was our first major campaign, and since then, we have focused on defining our process, developing our toolbox and running targeted mini-campaigns to solve specific problems. The mini-campaigns, or “focused sprints” as we call them, are a great way of engaging a small group of people and getting ideas fast.
We are also planning to run another global challenge, once we are able to get out to people in person again.
It quickly became clear to us that what we needed was a re-focus from technology/solution to market/customer. Our normal way of approaching innovation is to start with the technology, and only get input from potential customers once we are in the market. We love advanced gas springs, but if no one else does, it does not matter. We should always focus on customer needs instead of: “look what we can do”
I am trying to turn this around so that we actually require input from the market very early on. We also try to create teams around ideas that include both tech- and market people. This is unfamiliar to many people in our organisation, but when I say that it will help them save time later on, they will typically understand why it is a good idea.
Another thing that is very new to us as a company is to work at a more global level, sharing insights across our organisation and working in market segments, instead of a purely regional focus. Our vision “Your motion, our solution” requires that we collaborate across and that we also partner up with others to help us deliver comprehensive solutions targeting motion in general, instead of a solely product-oriented focus.
My focus right now is to “create some noise” around idea sharing by involving a lot of people in generating ideas and building insights, so that we create an atmosphere of this being normal, allowed and even expected. This is what I try to do with the focused sprints, by being open to ideas from individuals and through workshops with e.g. students and suppliers.
Later, I will focus more on the quality of the ideas coming in applying the tools and processes we have been creating. It is not perfect yet and we might still change things, but my philosophy is to “get in the pool and start swimming” rather than to wait for us to learn the perfect swim technique before we try it out.
The main challenges that I have experienced in my work, is to get access to people. Everyone is very hung up and I need to convince them to spend time on something they do not see the value in to begin with. Our success is depending on how much we are able to convince people. The positive outcome of the pandemic is that managers are gaining more trust in people actually doing their job, also when they are out of their direct control. The backing from the managers is essential for people to engage in innovation activities, and I hope that an increased trust from the managers will pave the way for being more open to spending time on innovation in the future.
To me, success is not so much about the number, but more about the connections. I am not a big fan of KPIs in innovation, but if you want to have the continuous back-up, we need to compromise and find some numbers. I see it as a tool to support my work. The real value, though, comes from creating connections among people. The connections will pave the way for innovation in the future. If you bring people together with the right topic, give them some input, solutions will come. If not to begin with, then later. When people know each other, and know who they can reach out to, it will become easier for them to solve problems and generate ideas in the future. It was a real eye opener to me to see people collaborating in the bootcamp; seeing the self-appointed teams with people from different departments, with no clear leadership, working together to deliver. This was unusual for us as a company, and it was great to see how cross-functional heterogeneous groups produced better results than the homogenous groups with people being all alike – as is the normal way for us to work. I am thus very much looking forward to being able to meet people again and build even more connections!