How to take innovation out of the ivory tower

An interview with intrapreneur, innovator, change agent, TedX speaker and Head of Emerging Business Global Customer Unit at Ericsson, Shannon Lucas about organizing innovation in the most fluid and inclusive...

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December 18, 2018
Team Engagement

Shannon Lucas has helped many Fortune 1000 corporate organizations like Cisco, Ericsson and Vodafone reinvent themselves. Being a big believer in inclusive innovation, she has a very clear vision about its most valuable methods and most recurrent pitfalls. Though she’s convinced that there is no one size fits all approach, and that separate innovation and R & D teams do offer a clear value, she also believes that innovation should be deeply imbedded into the DNA of the company, running through its every layer.

The fluid workforce

Shannon started our conversation by mentioning the importance of fluidity in today’s fast paced society. “The liquid workforce has an inside and an outside aspect”, she explained. “Inside first: in order to be able to seize the emergent opportunities, it’s increasingly imperative to have people who can flex. They need the time and freedom to go beyond their day job and be able to support some big new Day After Tomorrow project. Google has done this in the past with their 20% time dedicated to new ideas.” In this exponential and highly competitive world, it’s important to foster a fluidity of the skills, and the time and the effort across the business. It’s no longer realistic to expect that after 4 years of schooling, you’re all set. “People today need a growth mindset, to keep reinventing themselves alongside the company. Personal augmentation with machine learning or AI assistants will become essential in that perspective. And our ‘superpower’ in that equation will then be he ability to ask the right questions, to allow intelligent software to find the right patterns in the data.”

That fluidity has an outside branch as well, Shannon explained, thanks to the gig economy. For those skills that are missing in your company, you can easily bring contractors in for a certain amount of time. “Cisco is doing some interesting work around this, looking into how they could accredit those gig economy workers into some kind of certified workforce that they could for instance share with their ecosystem partners.”

Shannon continued by saying that there is really no easy answer when it comes to the structural organization of innovation inside corporations: “it’s incredibly dependent on the vision, the mission, the DNA of the company as well as the executive sponsorship and the insight that a company needs to constantly reimagine and recreate who it is.”

Be customer obsessed

Though Shannon believes that sparks of creativity triggering innovation can come from anywhere, she’s also very big on design thinking and outside-in customer-obsessed thinking. “Innovation should be connected; it ought to be the conduit between the customer and the core business: it needs to start from the customer. Above all, you ought to build, measure and learn to make sure that you don’t end up two years into a 100-million-dollar product development cycle before you have spoken with a single customer.” Customer feedback is the very basis of successful innovation, according to Shannon. Plus, a very underestimated part of involving the customer deeply in your innovation, is that it has a positive impact on the internal stakeholder management. “It is much easier to get people to support an innovation project with the message ‘one of your largest (potential) customers has made a bet on this with us” than with “Shannon has this really great idea” (laughs).

Get it out of the ivory tower

“you need to embed innovation deeply into the rest of the business if you want it to succeed”, said Shannon. “You have to have a strong methodology, with KPIs for everyone across the business that are focused on new growth areas: the latter is one way to make sure that when the innovation team is setting something down in front of the business, that there is sponsorship.” Without that executive support, projects end up being doomed for failure.

Another way to secure sponsorship for innovation projects and fight the corporate antibodies - as she calls the more traditionally driven nodes in a corporate network - is by focussing on massive inclusion: for instance, getting a project on the radar of the five biggest supporters and potential blockers and getting those on board early on. “If you are leading the innovation inside the team, a good way to involve the right people is to co-create the vision with them from day one. My first 30 days at Ericsson, I did a co-creation workshop just with my team: I asked them ‘You know Ericsson. Help me understand what our vision should be.’ We co-created a vision statement and I took that to the leadership team and said, ‘Hey, this is where your organization thinks we can go and how ambitious we can be. What do you think about it?’ I could then iterate with the executives, towards a goal of creating a compelling, exciting vision that has the necessary deep support to move it forward. So that when I come back in six months with some ideas that need to be driven or adjusted by business, leadership has a deep sense of ownership of that process and the idea that we are moving forward.”

In order to deeply embed the growth and innovation mindset inside an organization, you have to get outside of the ivory towers of innovation: by putting a lot of the skills you would have in an innovation team into a sales force or a product team that owns the P&L and the customer relationship. “I also structured the incentives program across the three horizons – of Today, Tomorrow and Day After Tomorrow - so that the team is not just thinking about immediate revenue, but is motivated to think about what the next year and five years of revenue will look like. And then what we’re doing is giving them the skills that I would normally do for an innovation champion program: like empathy, emerging trends, story-telling, business design, business modelling, UI, UX, etc.

Learning from the innovation team

Enabling your people to fail fast and learn is a big part of motivating an entrepreneurial culture inside organisations. It’s important to stay realistic about the fact that most of your experiments aren’t going to work, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t time well spent and that the organization didn’t learn something. “I think capturing those learnings is one of the biggest areas for improvement out of innovation programs because that is a big part of why they exist. It’s not that they’re all creating billion-dollar unicorns. But hopefully they’re getting closer to understanding the reality of the customer needs.”

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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December 18, 2018
Team Engagement