Fostering Employee Innovation at a 150-Year-Old Company

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Bayer’s mission is “Science for a Better Life.” We want to enable discoveries to promote health and secure food supply. To achieve that goal, however, we must innovate not only in terms of science and R&D, but also in how we run our business. This means shifting the way we work so we’re able to match the pace of change happening in the wider world.  With more than 100,000 employees and 150 years of history, there is only so much we can learn from the usual Silicon Valley exemplars. “We cannot be like Google, but neither do we want to be,” says Kemal Malik, the board member responsible for innovation, “We need to plot our own path.”

Our solution – one transferable to other organizations pursuing innovation – has been to create an agile network of volunteer ambassadors and coaches throughout the company who have taken collective responsibility for making innovation happen and steering our organizational culture in the right direction.

The innovation agenda

The origins of our agile network can be traced back to an online idea forum called WeSolve that we launched in 2014 as a way of challenging Bayer employees to contribute solutions to specific technical or commercial problems. To help its implementation we appointed 40 WeSolve coaches: people from different offices around the world who were excited by the initiative and prepared to devote some discretionary time to it. Within 12 months, WeSolve had attracted 1,650 contributors and 23,000 Bayer employees had visited the site.

Its success confirmed the power of an informal network for shifting behaviors in our large company. So, in August 2015 we secured board approval to create an innovation committee of 14 top executives and a full-time innovation strategy team of five people, to orchestrate the portfolio of specific initiatives that would create a new way of innovating throughout the company. The first priority was to inspire people with stories of successful internal innovators at Bayer.  We then offered people the opportunity to learn new innovation methodologies and apply them to real business challenges. A third priority was to build more platforms like WeSolve, to help people collaborate and exchange information across the organization. Most importantly, cutting across all these initiatives, we created the network of senior and mid-level managers to connect and inspire people to get engaged in  innovation.

Building an agile network

In 2016, country and function heads were asked to identify innovation ambassadors for each of the markets we’re in: 80 people senior enough to connect innovation to strategy and make things happen. They then helped us identify innovation coaches who would be responsible for bringing ideas to life in their respective business units. More than 600 were selected. Inspired by John Kotter’s dual-operating structure model, we asked all of these employees to maintain their “day jobs” within the established hierarchy, while also using 5-10% of their time to  work on fast-cycle, informal innovation projects  across  silos.

We gave them a three-day on-boarding program – a broad overview of the agenda plus deep insight into one technique (Systematic Inventive Thinking) they could immediately use to support their colleagues. We also provided webinars and conference calls to explain our other offerings and to share learning. What do the innovation coaches actually do? One popular activity is the fast session – a short, structured workshop to address a specific problem.  A manager might be struggling with an overly complex process or a new digital competitor. The coach would quickly assemble a team of four to six people and, using tools from their training, create a simple workshop to address the problem.  In 2018, we counted more than 50,000 fast sessions across the company.  We put on a further advanced training course for highly active coaches (who have run at least ten fast sessions), and 49 have so far done gone to this extra level.

Innovation ambassadors, meanwhile, oversee the coaches, ensure that the initiatives in their respective countries are aligned with the priorities of Bayer’s senior leaders, and serve as cheerleaders for collaborative innovation.

Extending the network

By creating this volunteer network, we were able to make dramatic progress in developing other aspects of our innovation agenda.

For example, in 2017 we created the CATALYST fund, a combination of professional support (using Lean Startup principles) and money to explore larger business opportunities across the company.   By asking the innovation ambassadors, we were able to identify 120 specific challenges within two weeks. We put €50,000 behind 28 of them and by early 2018 we had three pilots: a new business model in animal healthcare, a digital solution for clinical operations, and a gamified education app.  We have also built on and reinforced the agile network through other activities, for example by getting them to run local innovation events, involving them in our open innovation funding platform, and our co-working Live Hubs in Boston, Berlin and Singapore.

The key point is the network has now reached a critical mass, making our job at the center much easier.  We have a waiting list of about 200 people who want to become innovation coaches. This allows us to be selective about who takes on the role. We get them involved informally at first and talk to their line managers to make sure they can add this work to their existing responsibilities.

We now have around 80 ambassadors and 700 coaches across 70 countries, and more than 80% are actively engaged, even though their innovation work is in goes beyond their official job. They in turn have mobilized others:  more than 5,000 people have taken part in innovation events, 5,000 have taken part in webinars and innovation training events, and more than 38,000 people are using Youniverse, the online hub for all our innovation activities.

Three key insights

Our experience in changing the way we work to hasten innovation has given us three key insights:

Innovation is a social activity, and connectivity is an asset. The image of the lone inventor is alluring, but almost always wrong.  Innovation actually happens in teams, in cross-functional workshops, and through the involvement of many.  It is also a highly contagious.  After we introduced the fast session concept, there were some countries where it took off, with fast sessions every week, and everyone wanting to get involved.   This happened not because of a central directive, but because of the energy and skills of a few key individuals.

The dual-speed model needs a new mindset.  The notion that people should spend 5- 15% off their time working on fast-cycle projects, while the rest of their work is conducted at a slower clock-speed, is attractive but requires a lot of adjustment. Fast-cycle work is about experimentation, tolerance of ambiguity, and openness to failure, and these qualities do not come naturally to those who have spent their entire working lives at Bayer.  This isn’t a challenge we have completely resolved. We are still working on defining the right metrics, putting the right leaders in place, and building the necessary level of understanding across the company.

Volunteers need to be refreshed and reinforced.  Now that we’ve built the agile network and created a portfolio of activities to support them, we move on to the next,  arguably  harder, step of institutionalizing the new behaviors across the company. For this to happen, we need to actively replenish our agile network. We’re heartened by the rising number of people signing up to get involved, but we’ll need to keep expanding the team to maintain its impact over time.





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