On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Dr. Ben Bensaou, Professor at INSEAD and author of the new book Built to Innovate. We talk about some interesting case studies and essential practices that companies can use to make innovation accessible to everyone in the organization. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcript of Dr. Ben Bensaou, Professor at INSEAD and Author of Built to Innovate
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Dr. Ben Bensaou. He is the professor and former Dean of Executive Education at INSEAD and author of the new book, Built to Innovate: Essential Practices to Wire Innovation into your Company’s DNA. Welcome to the show, Ben.
Ben Bensaou: Good morning, Brian. And thank you for having me.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you. And I understand you’re in Japan right now, so we’re different sides of the world. You’ve got a new book out called Built to Innovate. But I wanted to step back and talk about how did you get into the field of innovation research.
Ben Bensaou: Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I got into the field of innovation starting where I am right now. I did my PhD looking at Japanese firms. And I had lived in Japan before, but my PhD at MIT Sloan was on the way that Japanese firms were actually developing production systems. And a production system was the quality management movement.
So, I was in Japan at the time. And then when I went back and joined INSEAD, I continued my interest in Japanese firms, but this time I want to know what they were doing in the field of innovation. And this is how I got involved with companies in Japan and outside of Japan. Mostly its established firms who are trying to become more innovative.
Brian Ardinger: One of the things that we think about is corporations, it’s hard for them to innovate. Maybe now it’s a little bit more thought of is, you know with all the disruption from everything from COVID to new technologies and that. Companies are a little bit more aware of the fact that they need to be innovating and that the world is changing around them. Can you talk a little bit about how your research and your experience in the field of innovation has changed and evolved over the years?
Ben Bensaou: Yes. I would say that one thing that I’ve noticed over the years, I’ve been doing my teaching innovation and also helping firms is that I noticed that number one, a lot of people, a lot of organizations equate innovation with launching a new blockbuster product or coming up with a life changing new business model.
Many also think that you need to have a genius leader or to be a startup by a matter of fact, to be innovative, to be able to innovate. But I found out that it’s not true. I found in my research established even centuries old companies are able to innovate. How did they do this? Well, they don’t only focus on industry changing effects, but also for small important changes, very often in unexpected places.
And for this, what they do is that they rely on continuous and systematic innovation. Innovation of all kinds. And innovation driven by everyone in the organization. And that’s what Built to Innovate is about. It’s really about how do you embed continuous innovation inside an organization using a systematic approach.
Brian Ardinger: I think that’s so important because a lot of corporations that I’ve talked to want innovation to happen somewhere else. Or like they have their teams and they’re executing on their business model and they’re optimizing that, but they want innovation to happen somewhere else. So, they create an innovation lab or something and they throw the idea over to someone else to execute.
But what I’ve seen, and I think what it’s apparent in your book, and the examples you give is that again, to survive in this changing world, we all have to become innovators. And it doesn’t mean, like you said, you have to come up with the next electric car, but you have to find problems and take those early ideas and then innovate them and execute on them so that they become value creation, parts of the business.
Ben Bensaou: Absolutely. Absolutely. I find so many people expecting that the innovation is going to come from the leaders. Or, you know, like you say, they create a skunkworks, or they create specialist units that are supposed to do all the innovations for the company.
And I think many organizations, and I found this very innovative companies in my research, are able to enlist and leverage the capability of everyone in the organization. For this, what they do is that that they create what I call an innovating engine. Which is a protected, fully legitimized and organized space within the company where everyone can innovate. Not just the specialist.
You can innovate in everything you do. I mean, you can innovate of course, in your products and services, but you can innovate in your processes as well, or your internal functions. You can innovate in HR and legal. And you can make innovating a regular habit. Not a sporadic kind of burst of creativity when there’s a crisis. And that’s what I think I’ve seen some of these innovative companies do is to create this innovating engine. And leveraging everybody’s inate capabilities.
Brian Ardinger: So, what do you think are some of the common myths or mistakes that companies make when it comes to executing or putting these innovation initiatives into place.
Ben Bensaou: I think it’s always the same thing is that many of these organizations, like you were talking earlier about startups, don’t have the problem of size. When they start, they’re all innovating in a sense innovating mode. Everybody is in contact with customers. But as soon as you grow, you start to be dominated by an execution logic.
And the execution, what I call the execution takes over. The execution engine takes over. And the execution changing is very much about control. It’s no surprise that many organizations, established organizations, develop hierarchies and vertical silos focused on supplier side view challenges.
And innovating in a sense is less about control. Is more about delegating and is more about collaboration. Is more about teamwork. Horizontal structures that are focused on the customer. Like you said earlier, I think this is a very important word. You said innovation is about problem finding. What kind of new problems do we need to find to solve for the customers. And execution is very much about problem solving. It’s a very convergent mindset.
And I think this is where a lot of companies fail. Is that they don’t realize that when you move into innovating and what I’m saying is that when you create an innovating engine, you allow for every employee to be able to spend time doing some innovating activity in the space of the invading engine. And at that time, they need to switch their mind. They need to switch from a supply side view to a customer side view.
Brian Ardinger: That’s really interesting because too many folks forego or forget about that exploration side of the business. That a lot of companies don’t measure or reward for that type of activity as well. What are your thoughts when it comes to why is it so hard for employees to be innovating?
Ben Bensaou: As a matter of fact, I would almost say that it’s not very difficult for frontline people to be innovating. We can come back later to the importance of middle management, but I think it’s said the dominance, I would almost say the tyranny of the execution mindset stops people from genuinely discovering what the customer really needs.
So, for me, when people are switching from an execution mode to an innovating mode, they have to embrace a customer perspective. And there, there are three challenges that I like to think about. One is to listen to what I call the voice of the customer. What are the likes, the pain points, the wishes of the customer? And when you are in innovating mode, you have to switch away from the traditional tell mode or even worse, sometimes people are in complete sell mode and try to be in a listening mode very much with empathy for the customer.
The second challenge I think, is about listening to what I call the silence of the customer. The silence of the customer is the things they don’t tell you. They don’t tell you. And they don’t tell you about it either because they don’t know or because they know, but they don’t think it’s your problem to solve.
So maybe it could be interesting for the audience. I give you an example about how Phillips, I mean the Dutch appliance and consumer electronics company, develop the first kettle with limescale mouth filter. So, there was a colleague who was a consultant in a consulting firm, and he was part of the team was helping Phillips re-energize their market share for kettles in the UK market. The team leader at some point asked some of the team members to spend a few days and actually live in families in the UK. Observing how customers use their kettles.
And after a few days, the members noticed that people were facing a problem they never told them about. I mean, when they were trying to pour the boiling water into the cup of tea. I guess, because the water had a lot of calcium, there was this little coat of limescale floating on top of the tea.
And it’s very interesting because the customer knew about the problem. It was obvious because they were trying to scoop the limescale with their spoon. But they never told the kettle manufacturer. As a matter of fact, they complain about it, but they complained to the water authorities, not to cattle manufacturer.
Brian Ardinger: Interesting.
Ben Bensaou: So, this is very interesting because it took only a few months for engineers at Phillips to develop this little filter, which you can find in any kettle these days, that blocks or stops the limescale. So, each time you pour the water, it stops the limescale from getting in your tea. This is what I call the silence of the customer. The customer wouldn’t tell you about it. So, you need to find this problem in spite of the customer. Not thanks to the customer in spite of the customer.
And then the third challenge is what I call the non-customers. It’s very important to learn to listen to non-customers. So here I could give an example, one, for instance, kind of observed Fiskars’s for instance, when they, the Finnish company that makes tableware and garden tools. So, for their cutting tools, for instance, they spend time with surgeons in operating rooms, you know.
Or they look at first tree workers who cut trees in large scale. They’re not like cutting small trees in the garden, but on a large scale and very often. And much more dramatic example is this company called EcoCem. It’s in the cement business. They developed a new technology, a substitute for cement based on a technology called GGBS, which has much lower carbon footprint.
And it is made out of a byproduct of the steel industry. So, it is very, very good for the environment. It has the same properties of traditional cement. Now, the only problem is that the dominant incumbents, were not looking at it very positively. So, when EcoCem tried to sell it to the customer, the customers we’re hearing all this criticism from the dominant players, and they were not very keen on playing with it.
It just happens at the cement industry is a very regulated industry. So, what EcoCem did instead of focusing on the customers, they focused their attention on their regulators. And they spent a lot of time engaging the regulators, bringing experts on the new technology to regulators. They managed to have the regulators actually accept and propose the new technology. And then the customers walked in. So, this is again, a very good example where the innovation didn’t come by creating value to the customers, the construction companies. But to the regulators who are the people who can influence what the customer do.
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Brian Ardinger: And that’s a good segue because I think a lot of folks think about innovation as this solo, mad scientist comes up with an idea and executes on it. But you talk a lot about in the book, this importance of collaboration. It is important engaging that idea with others and that. So can talk a little bit more about that process of collaboration.
Ben Bensaou: I think this is very important, I would say that innovation is a team sport. And cross-functional teams are very important. And I always am surprised when I observed teams, to realize that it’s not always the ones we think who are going to have that critical insights.
So, it’s very important to bring people with different mindsets. And then it’s very important to close the gap. Close the distance between the would be innovators and the customers. Or there would be innovators in the company and the salespeople. For instance, I think these are two spaces and this is part of what I call the innovating engine.
So maybe I can give an example of the first situation. This is about Kordsa. This is a Turkish company. They manufacturer fabric that is used to reinforce tires. On a regular basis, they send cross disciplinary team to their customer’s plants. And these teams, they literally camp at the plants of the customers.
They stay for a few days, and I’ve seen actually in the early days, they used to have a tent in the plant. And they just roam around, talk to people, observe what is happening in the plant. And these are cross-functional teams. You might have somebody from engineering, somebody from R and D, somebody from marketing, from legal, somebody from procurement.
And at one plant, the team saw that the workers and the customer were having trouble to safely handle roles of reinforcing fabric that were loaded onto a truck. Now, again, this is an example of a silence of the customer. The customers knew the problem, they were facing the problem, but they didn’t know the supplier could solve it.
So, what happened is that this team at Kordsa, they just went back home and remedy the problems by developing a small kind of methodology, some process. They trained the customers into this new process, and they were able to help them reduce the resources from 30 minutes for three people to 12 minutes for one worker.
And this was literally because they were able to go as a team and they close the gap between the team and the customer. So, it’s very important to not only have multidisciplinary team, but also to bring the inside the firm first to bring the innovators together with the salespeople and then to bring the innovators together with the customer.
Brian Ardinger: The last topic I want to talk about, and we talked briefly about it, but so everybody in the organization should be an innovator and should have the capabilities and aptitude to make things happen like that. But oftentimes middle managers and higher end managers either block that or change that. What are the roles of mid managers and upper management when it comes to innovation?
Ben Bensaou: Let me talk to this as an example, and then I’ll explain the roles. This is about Bayer, the global pharmacology and life science company based in Germany. So, this is a company that has a long history of scientific achievements through R and D and brilliant scientists. Yet in 2014, they decided to create from scratch to create an innovating engine, to leverage the capabilities of the hundred thousand employees in the company.
So how did they do this? First, they made the whole board responsible for innovation. Then they selected 80 senior managers across all country groups and global functions. And these ambassadors, they made them as ambassadors. They were supporting these 80 senior managers became ambassadors, supporting the board. They were innovation ambassadors. And as ambassadors they spend most of their time with middle managers.
Explaining, training, advocating, sponsoring innovation. And then they did something very important for these middle managers. They created a formidable support structure. Between 2016 and 2020, they trained and certified a thousand innovation coaches, which they activated locally across the whole company.
And then for frontline people, they created WeSolve. This is a digital platform where any employee in Bayer can post information about a problem they’re struggling with. And invite input and ideas from anyone in the company. So just to give you a sense. I visited the site once at any given time, they have 200 challenges posted on a platform. And then up to now, 40,000 employees at Bayer have participated in this platform.
But to tell you the truth, Brian, what really impressed me the most in the statistic they showed me is that out of the best ideas that are proposed for all these challenges that are posted, two third of the best ideas effectively come from a department or unit different from where the person who posted the challenge works.
This is to give you an example of what is a formal structure for an innovating engine. You can see that the senior leaders are the ones who have to give permission. They have the ones who have to give to permission to everybody to be able to innovate.
They are the ones who create the governance structure, the coaches, and the local coordinators. Then the middle managers have a very important role. I was really surprised in my research to find out that middle managers are actually the key to innovation in corporate settings. Without middle managers, innovation gets lost.
I’ve found it in any organization, senior leaders, they get it. They’re facing a tough environment. They understand that without innovation, they can’t survive. Frontline people, I mean the facing customers and non-customers on a daily basis. They understand that they have to innovate to solve the pain point and respond to the wishes and desires.
But the middle managers are the ones who are caught in between because they don’t have that direct pressure for innovation. And on top of it, they are the ones who are incentivized on execution. They’re responsible for execution and they don’t know if they don’t get trained. They don’t know how to help their people innovate.
So, they need also this support structure to help them any time an individual or a team wants to innovate. They need to have these coaches. So, I would say you need to have senior leaders. You need to have the ones who create what I call the reframing. Allow for the organization to challenge the status quo challenge. Challenge the basic assumptions.
The middle managers are the ones who participate in what I call the integration process. The process by which you connect the ideas and the people and the resources. And the process by which you winnow, channel, select, maybe prototype some of the best ideas before they get moved to the execution engine.
So, this is a very important role for the middle managers. And they are the ones who support the frontline. And the frontline are the ones who have a huge contribution to make to what I call the creation process. The process by which the organization generates new ideas. New ideas are the raw material of innovation.
And I explain how they do this by listening to the voice of the customer, the silence of the customer, and try to learn from non-customers. So, as I say, in this innovating engine, everybody has an important role to play. Senior leaders, middle managers and frontline innovators.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: And I encourage anybody who’s listening to this podcast, who’s in an innovation to pick up a copy of Built to Innovate. It’s got a ton of great case studies, as you said. And it really helps set the framework for how you can start creating more of a culture of innovation within your company. If people want to find out more about yourself or the book, what’s the best way to do that?
Ben Bensaou: LinkedIn. I have a profile on LinkedIn. I have also my website on the INSEAD and then for the book, they can go to their local Amazon to find the book and to order it. Or they can go to the website for the book, which is BTIthebook.com. BTI for Built to Innovate thebook.com.
Brian Ardinger: Well, Dr. Bensaou, thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Really enjoyed the conversation and look forward to continuing it as the world changes in the future.
Ben Bensaou: Thank you, Brian. It’s a lot of fun.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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