Meant to raise questions and serving as a learning opportunity for graduate students in academic program around the globe, this case study lifts the corporate curtain a bit to show how innovation through intrapreneuring really happens and decision points along the way.
The newly appointed director of Innovation Management & Strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim, a German-based multinational pharmaceutical company, is finding his way forward in his firm’s new, first-of-its-kind role, which is central to the company’s growth rejuvenation strategy. His job has a threefold mandate: to build internal networks, to establish internal structures and to leverage internal ideas. His biggest challenge, however, may be transforming the organization’s DNA. The blockbuster business model that has characterized the company for decades is no longer appropriate. Instead, the firm needs to develop healthcare products available to end users over the counter. This shift in strategy requires innovative changes in distribution, delivery and customer focus. To accomplish this goal, he needs to institutionalize innovation so that it becomes sustainable. But in doing so, he must also identify the metrics for assessing progress. The case provides an opportunity for students to step into the shoes of an innovation leader, to develop an innovation roadmap for the organization in the face of uncertainty and to understand how to engage in innovation leadership at various levels of a global enterprise.
This case has two key objectives. First, this case provides students an opportunity to grapple with the difficult decisions associated with innovation in an uncertain environment. Second, this case highlights that anyone has the ability to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and to lead innovation. The case divides the attributes of an innovation leader into five components: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking and associating. It shows the real-life experiences of a manager doing seemingly routine activities, who evolved into a leader who transformed the DNA of a global enterprise. The case also provides a template of the tasks, responsibilities and value-added changes as an individual moves progressively within an enterprise from an operations manager to a senior manager to an innovation leader. This case can be used either toward the beginning or toward the end of any course that addresses innovation and creative thinking in a large organization. At the beginning of a course, it illustrates the challenges of acting in the face of uncertainty in a large organization. At the end of a course, the case provides an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned about innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation leadership.
Most change initiatives fail. Statistics from MIT research suggest that for leaders managing change the ‘capability trap’ is the single major failure mode. So, what is this trap, how is it set up and, more importantly, how to avoid it?
As a quick disclaimer, the charts and examples are schematic and simple to get my point across. This is a blog, not a textbook.
New leaders get appointed to solve a business problem such as improving poor results of sorts. So from the start the new guy or gal is under pressure to perform and succeed. In politics the common public expectations are to see result or bold actions within the first 100 days – and business is not known for being less demanding.
So, soon enough the new leader faces a tough decision. Which choice do you favor?
“Worse before better” means doing “the right thing.” However, this approach may not deliver sustainable results fast and is a hard sell to impatient or less reasonable superiors.
“Better before worse” is a less stellar route to reap short-term benefits and lessen the immediate pressure but it comes at a price: knowing that the this choice is not sustainable and will cost more later down the road.
By the way, this is really not rocket-science but straight-forward logic yet many executives still get seduced by the low hanging fruit, namely “better before worse”… so stay with me for a moment to see what happens next.
“Better before Worse”
It starts out easy: you cut cost all over the place and look like a hero immediately. For example, you could reduce machine maintenance or cut the employee training budget. Schematically it looks somewhat like this:
What happens is that not only your balance sheet looks better quickly, you also increase productivity short-term. The machines keep running and people keep on working, so in the short-term you produce the same output with less input.
Productivity and the Capability Inertia
The problems arrive with a delay when ‘capability inertia’ starts kicking in. So here is what happens: You didn’t maintain the machines yet the machines keep working – for while. Then, they break really bad and it takes a lot more money to get them fixed than having them maintained. It’s like not putting oil in your car’s engine and driving on – somewhere down the road the engine will die on you. You will have to spend money to fix it and live with the downtime while fixing the machines.
At that time you find yourself in deep water and all your previous savings go up in smoke together with what else you didn’t budget for.
On the people side with employee training, for example, the effect is quite similar but often less obvious: You save the money for keeping them up-to-date with new technology, skilled, etc. and saved short-term. The real problem is your staff losing its professional capabilities to continue to perform on a high level in the face of competition or adapting to changing markets and environments. External focus comes with a cost of doing business – that you just eliminated, thereby fostering group-think and internal focus. Getting the crew back in shape later on takes effort and is expensive: not only will you have to train them but also they are unproductive during the training period.
With it comes the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect where valuable talent leaves. It is the best people who leave first (see How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm?) if they see sweeping cost savings affecting critical investments in the company’s future capabilities and not surgically cuts. Talent does not wait it out on a sinking ship. If you are unfamiliar with the horrendous costs of turnover, check with your Human Resources person to get a sense for your burn-rate!
Despite all of this, many managers still embrace “better before worse” as the scenario of choice and believe they are “doing it the right way”.
Rewards for all the Wrong Reasons?
Unfortunately, performance and compensation frameworks in mature organizations usually support this easier approach. ‘Success’ is typically measured quarterly or yearly as a basis for bonuses, raises or promotions. The typical incentive systems don’t take long-term sustainability into account enough (other than stock options for publicly traded companies, for example) to change behavior.
Instead, rewards keep getting handed out on a short-term basis of evaluation. Research showed many times over that this approach simply doesn’t work for more challenging jobs of the 21st century. Don’t believe it? – Check out Dan Pink’s famous 18 minute TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” relating to the candle problem and motivation research.
As a bottom line, if don’t plan to hang around to ride out the consequences of your choice (or even have a golden parachute ready), “better before worse” appears an attractive shortcut to short-term success. Deep down, however, you know it was not the right thing to do. Your staff, your successor, and sometimes the entire company will suffer and face the consequence when you are gone. – So what could you do instead?
“Worse before Better”
There is an alternative choice: the stony road of “worse before better” by doing what is right. For leaders accepting responsibility this may be the only choice.
Right from the starts is gets tough: you increase cost to invest where things need to change most, be it people or technology. For example, invest in getting the best people to do the job and train them as well as you can for the challenges to come and step out of their way. Establish or overhaul technology, processes and managerial framework needed to deliver results reliably.
This takes time and money, so as you would expect, productivity suffers at first but then, if the change is executed well, recovers and quickly exceeds the additional costs by far while you deliver outstanding results reliably.
It is important here not to address all problems at one time but to prioritize and tackle change in smaller steps. Mind that change is a development process that doesn’t lend itself to shortcuts.
While this is clearly the more sustainable strategy the tough part is getting your stakeholders and superiors to buy in (especially if they are looking for short-term “better before worse” results) by setting realistic expectations. After all, “worse before better” is a sustainable basis for a business model where “better before worse” is not.
You may also have to accept not receiving the short-term performance incentives for doing the right thing if your incentive system does not reward building capabilities. However, there are other kinds of meaningful rewards to consider. They range from feeling good about withstanding the temptation, doing good for the company and its employees, as well as possibly getting attention from more forward-thinking parties who may want to hire you in the future as a leader with guts and brains.
While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.
An alternative and sustainable way to tap deep into your employees’ creative potential and turning it into solid business value is by forming an employee resource group (ERG). A well-crafted ERG serves as a powerful and strategic innovation engine for your organization!
Losing the innovative edge?
It is the large companies that seem to struggle with innovation most. When companies grow they tend to become less innovative. When this happens we see great talent turning into under-performing employees. – Why is that and is there a way out?
Stuck in mental models of the past?
Remember the heavy dinosaurs that finally got stuck in the pre-history tar pits and starved, too heavy to move themselves out of the calamity? Mental models are the tar pits that companies grow to get stuck in – unless they find a way to shed (mental) weight and think nimble again to survive.
The mental models often originate from days past when the business started and flourished with initial success. The models worked when the company grew back then but models out-date easily over time. At some point the company began to work harder to standardize its processes to ensure the output is delivered reliably and predictably and costs are driven down: the focus shifted from innovation to efficiency. Specialized and refined business functions create increasingly complex and bureaucratic processes, ‘standard operating procedures’ rule the course of action. Things don’t move fast here anymore. Improvement ideas from employee on the floor hardly make it to the top executives and starve somewhere in between, probably in the famous ‘idea box’…
This focus on incremental efficiency also traps R&D departments to a point where true creativity and innovation get stifled, the innovative output drops. In short, the larger a company the less it innovates. Sounds familiar?
Many companies chose the dangerous and seemingly easy way out in buying new ideas from the outside through acquisitions and hiring ‘new talent’. The danger lays in applying this practice too broadly and becoming reliant on this practice, i.e. getting trapped in a vicious and reinforcing cycle. This practice also alienates and frustrates the more seasoned employees who feel underutilized and –quite rightly so see their career opportunities dwindling. Soon enough the sour side of the hire-for-innovation practice for employees becomes transparent also to the newer employees and drives them away in frustration. This organization just found the perfect recipe to turn top talent into poor performers!
Don’t waste your human capital
Bringing in fresh brains to an organization may justify mergers, acquisitions or hiring at times – but not as a strategy for continuous innovation and without also at least trying to tap into the innovative capacity that lays dormant within the organization.
Don’t write your staff off easily by following blindly the common yet wrong assumption that an employee loses the creative spirit after a few years and that new hires would be more innovative than whom we already have working for us. Haven’t we hired the best and brightest consistently in the past? Well, then this logic doesn’t add up, right?
Ask yourself: have you lost your innovative edge? Will you personally be more innovative once you change to another employer? – I don’t think so either. The good news is that even if you don’t believe it, changes are that managers and human resource experts of your new employer do, at least the ones who follow the outdated mental model! – But then, how long can you expect to last there before you get written off? It’s like getting on a train to nowhere.
Derailing the train to nowhere
But seriously, the seasoned employees’ intimate knowledge of the organization and its people can hold enormous potential for innovation not only under financial considerations but also as a morale booster for staff. Getting personally involved more and engaging them in driving change again actively leads the way to measurable and favorable results for the organization. These employees are the people who know your business, your markets, your customers and where to find resources and short-cuts if needed to get things done! Remember the “Radar” character in M*A*S*H who creatively procured whatever his unit needed by knowing how to play ‘the system’ and navigate the cliffs of bureaucracy on unconventional routes?
So, how can you motivate and (re-)activate your employees to come forward with brilliant ideas and getting them implemented to boost the organization’s profitability? How can you spread new hope and direct the enthusiasm to practical and meaningful outcomes for the company and the individual employee alike?
Facing organizational barriers
There is no shortage of good ideas in the heads of employees. Too few of them, however, actually get picked up and implemented since organizational barriers have many dimensions the need to be overcome first. Here are some examples:
A vertical barrier effectively disconnects employees from the executive level which hold the (financial and other) resources to make things happen. Penetrating this barrier means to connect the people within the organization closely and effectively again.> Readers of my previous post What does take to keep innovating? (part 1) will recognize that an executive champion is needed who brings together the technical and business champions. If you feel intrapreneurial and consider becoming an executive champion, check this out: How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2)
The horizontal barrier separates business functions and operating units that evolved to become silos or manager’s ‘fiefdoms’ of sub-optimized local productivity often with lesser concern to the overall performance of the organization. What you are up against here is often enough beyond specialized deep expertise but also defensive egos and managerial status thinking that led to a comfortable and change-adverse local equilibrium. As an intrapreneur you bring a much needed yet disruptive element to the organization. Since you are rocking the boat you can get caught up in ‘politics’ easily. Functional managers and their staff may perceive you as throwing a wrench into their well-oiled and fine-tuned machine that could jeopardize not only their unit’s efficiency but also their personal incentives for keeping operations running smoothly.> For more insight on the tension field of management vs. leadership check out Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?
Another barrier relates to the perceived value that your work creates for the organization, so let’s call it the value barrier: When you start acting intrapreneurial, you may be seen as someone wasting resources, incurring additional cost or generating questionable value (if any value at all) in the eyes of executives and other managers.
Therefore it is of critical importance to clearly demonstrate the business value your work adds to the organization. Based on an unambiguous success metrics the value proposition needs to be communicated clearly and frequently especially to executive management to gain their buy-in and active support.
These and possibly more barriers are a tough challenge. Now, I assume you are not the almighty ‘Vice President of Really Cool Stuff’ (that would be my favorite future job title!) but hold a somewhat lower rank. Perhaps you got stuck in the wrong department (the one without the Really Cool Stuff).
So, where do you start to innovate and ‘rescue’ your organization from a looming train-wreck scenario?
Breaking down barriers by innovating from within using ERGs
A vehicle I tried out quite successfully over the past years was forming an employee resource group (ERG). This grassroots approach has the power to crash right through the vertical, horizontal and value barriers while driving change effectively and sustainably through the organization as a strategic innovation engine.
Here are the first steps on the way to founding an ERG:
Identify a business need and build a business case, i.e. a clear value proposition aimed at executive management convincing them of the need and benefits of forming an ERG within the limits of company policies. Attracting an influential executive sponsor to gain buy-in is a key requirement for instituting an ERG successfully. The sponsor serves as a political and resourceful ally, an experienced advisor and advocate but also ensures strategic alignment of the ERG’s activities with the broader goals of the company.Since executives value their time more than yours, keep it short and to the point. Think executive summary style and offer details separately for those who chose to dig deeper and to demonstrate that you thought this whole thing through. If your organization already has a distinguished officer or departments with a vested interest in employee engagement for example then connect, collaborate and leverage your joint forces.> More on how to build a case study for an ERG at: Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG
Get organized! Seek voluntary members and reach out to future constituency of the ERG. Active members are needed as the driving force and source of ideas that the ERG turns into business projects aimed to innovate and energize the organization.
The first ERG I founded was “NxGen”, which stands for the “Next Generation at the Workplace”. The NxGen ERG has a generational orientation but is open to all employees regardless of their age or workplace generation. Nonetheless, from the start mostly the youngest employees (Generation Y) drove NxGen. In many cases they did not know of each other as the GenY-ers were spread thin across the various business functions of the company.The GenY-ers, in particular, found a forum in the NxGen ERG to get to know each other in the first place. We then focused on goals based on shared values or needs to build a strong support network within the company. At all times we kept the ERG open and inclusive to interested employees join from other workplace generations.
The ERG offers its members a safe environment to discuss issues and ideas. It also serves as an informal forum to find coaches and mentors for personal development or specific projects and initiatives. Active ERG membership allows less experienced employees to quickly acquire new skills and test them in real-life by running a project hands-on even in areas outside of their job description or business function to address needs close to their heart with tangible business value. Here, the ERG serves as a very practical leadership development pipeline and safe ground for experimentation within the organization.
Get active by launching business-focused projects. Again, you are targeting management and executives in particular to build credibility and thereby become more effective over time.Start with feasible projects of high visibility and short duration that address a significant business need with a clear and quantifiable success metrics. For each project seek executive sponsorship at the highest level you can attain from the business area that the project affects. Make sure to communicate your successes broadly and frequently to kick-start the ERG. Stick to a clear, specific and unambiguous metrics for your success; if you can tie it to a monetary ROI the better, as this is the language of business.> More on establishing a success metric under: Driving the ROI – where to start your projects metrics?
Showcasing and celebrating your successes as an ERG motivates the already active members, keeps attracting new members and builds credibility among executives to keep the ERG wheels turning as a strategic innovation engine for your organization.
On a personal note
The example of the NxGen ERG is very real. NxGen was nationally recognized as best-practices ERG within 5 months (!) of its founding and became a valued and frequent sounding board for C-level executives within one year. The ERG has no funds of its own yet runs projects and initiatives nationally and internationally that already shifted the company culture and opened it more for change.
Effective executive sponsorship is a key success factor for ERGs. This posting discusses the benefits of executive sponsorship and how to attract and recruit an executive sponsor.
How to attract an executive sponsor?
All right, I take it you started building you ERG business case, as this is the first step to getting executive support to move on. (See the previous posting.)
You want to make sure the ERG’s goals are not only aligned with the company’s business strategies and are measurable! Having a clear and unambiguous success metrics at hand is the best basis for argumentation, to check your progress and finally document your success. It makes it so much easier to build credibility and trust as well as to communicate success clearly to get support throughout the organization. (Metrics will certainly be a future topic here!)
So look at the business areas, the strategic goals and high-level projects that your CEO communicates. Consider thinking along those lines to flesh out the need for your ERG, to set goals and getting ideas for projects that your ERG could work on in support of the business.
What you aim for is attracting a powerful executive sponsor that serves you and your ERG in several ways:
Support and promote the ERG’s activities actively
Help you navigating through the deep waters of corporate politics to keep you and your ERG out of trouble
Point out opportunities and
Provide some basic funding to run the ERG
Offer advice when you need it (or when you think you don’t need it but then find out you were blindsided and now are happy you sponsor picked up on it!)
Look at your executive leadership team for a sponsor that has a vested interest in your ERG and its goals. Go out and talk to them, pitch your idea! Be creative how to approach them (this is actually a nice future topic by itself!). – You may be surprised how willing executives listen to compelling business logic that you unfold in front of the.
What are the business needs of the executive sponsor? Build them into your business plan. Consider synergistic ERG projects that will also help your sponsor achieving their goals. You may even ask what you could do for them and make sure to find out what the sponsor’s expectations are.
Be very respectful of their (valuable) time. Make it easy for them to follow you (give an informative summary, for example) and prepare for them what you want them to do (such as drafting an email you want them to send out).
Remember, from the executive sponsor down to each recruit each person wants to know: “What’s in it for me?” – Prepare to deliver!
Changing the organization from within by engaging employees in business-focused employee resource groups (ERGs) – the practical “how-to” guide!
Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?
The answer can be as simple as this: Because it makes good business sense!
But what makes this answer so simple? – Well, because it’s made up of a few simple aspects:
First of all, every company, unless it is classified as a non-profit, is in business for one reason: to make money by providing some sort of product or service to its customers.
Simply put, if a company fails to rack up profits it will go out of business. That’s why focusing on the business benefits, the “bottom line”, the return on investment (ROI) makes not only sense but is key for successful employee resource groups (ERGs). It’s the bottom-line arguments, the financial benefits, that open the doors to executive support, buy-in, and funding.
Second, to take advantage of the diversity and capabilities of the human capital readily available.
Let’s look at companies, its workforce and its markets today: We live and work globally – everyone is connected. Our markets today are just as diverse and multi-faceted as our workforce should be. It takes all we know and who we are as diverse human beings (coming from different cultures and ethnicities, religious beliefs, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, and so on) to understand what our customers need and how we can give it to them.
Therefore, it makes sense not only to diversify the product portfolio to mitigate risk and seize opportunity but also to diversify the workforce for the same reasons. Not tapping into all of your workforce’s diversity and capabilities puts you at a disadvantage to companies who know how to maximize their human capital effectively.
Are you still with me? So, the next question is how to meet this goal.
Stay tuned for practical advice, keeping it simple, and examples taking you through the steps on how to build a business-focused ERG.