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Change Your Organisational DNA and Bring Back Innovation Into Your Business with Ben M. Bensaou

There’s no secret that, in today’s business climate, innovation is the only way companies can maintain an advantage over their competitors. No matter the field or industry you position yourself in, if you manage to create extra value for your company and the customers your company serves, you are almost undoubtedly destined for success.

But, in order to achieve this holy grail and transform your organisation into an innovating engine, you first need to learn to listen to your customers and your employees and understand the role they play in helping you identify real problems and the right solutions for those problems.

Today’s guest on The Melting Pot is Ben M. Bensaou, professor and former Dean of Executive Education at INSEAD and business innovation thought leader. In his book, Built to Innovate- Essential Practices to Wire Innovation Into Your Company’s DNA, Ben shares the proven system for building relentless innovation and culture that he discovered while researching companies from all over the world. 

We talk about all of his findings and the skills he thinks are required to create that perfect innovating culture, so make sure to download and listen to this fascinating episode!

In today’s episode:

  • Solutions for businesses that struggle with innovation
  • Listen to your customer to discover the weaknesses in your business
  • Three skills you need to create the perfect exchange of information between you and your clients (or potential clients)
  • The importance of middle managers
  • How to identify real problems that need solving
  • Improving your ability to spot and develop good ideas for your business


How to wire innovation into your organisation with Ben M. Bensaou

Ben M. Bensaou is a professor and former Dean of Executive Education at INSEAD, and an expert on building and enhancing a company’s innovating capabilities. His book, Built to Innovate: Essential Practices to Wire Innovation into Your Company’s DNA, was named one of the Thinkers50 Best New Management Books for 2022. Ben earned a PhD from MIT Sloan School, an M.A. in Management from Hitostubashi University, Tokyo, and an M.S. in Civil Engineering from ENTPE, Lyon, France.

Ben has been studying and doing research and teaching innovation for about 20 years. And “in true INSEAD way” – as he says, he engages with companies all around the world, especially in Japan.

Ben spent a lot of time in Japan, the Middle East, and the U.S. He even spent two years in San Francisco looking at startups. “And then it was really surprising because I got involved and was able to ran into companies, very traditional companies operating in kind of established businesses not known necessarily for innovation.  they kind of literally transformed themselves from into innovation powerhouses. And that was really the surprise to me”

Especially in California, Ben was expecting higher levels of innovations from the usual tech and entertainment companies like Apple, Tesla or Marvel, Netflix. Instead, he found that there was a completely different set of companies that we don’t hear about that were extremely innovative.

And that’s how his book, Built to Innovate: Essential Practices to Wire Innovation into Your Company’s DNA came to live.

The surprising answer to innovation

Very often – says Ben– people believe that you need to have a genius leader or to be a startup, to innovate. However, Ben realised that wasn’t always the truth. In fact, he found traditional, established, and even centuries-old kinds of companies were able to innovate.

“What they do is that they don’t focus on trying to find huge industry-changing effects. They’re more looking for small but important changes. Even sometimes in unexpected places. And the way they do that is by leveraging the innovative capabilities of everyone in the organisation. So they use continuous systematic innovation driven by everyone the in the organisation.”

That’s why Ben wanted to write his book, to tell the story of a different narrative about innovation – not about the one genius, big bang disruptive innovation, but something where it was much more continuous and systematic. It wasn’t about changing the whole industry, but innovating in your products, your processes, and your functions.

Embedding innovation into the organisation

If you’re a traditional company, you usually think of innovation as something that senior leaders or a specialist, the R&D guys and new product development do. But, very often, when Ben walks into a company and asks people ‘who does innovation around here’ everybody points him to the same usual suspects. But then when you step back, and you ask people, but who should be innovating in the company, everybody admits actually everybody should be innovating.

What Ben found in these companies is that they operate with two engines at the same time. They have the traditional engine, or what he calls ‘execution engine’ that executes today’s strategy. But, then, these companies have created a parallel engine: the innovation engine. This one “is about creating and rethinking the way we do things today, creating, imagining the products of the future.”

“What’s important is that they’re calling upon the innovating capability of everybody in the organization. So every employee gets engaged in both engines, so their daily work is, of course, the execution, but on a regular basis. And this is the role of middle managers on a regular basis.”

Every employee gets a chance to switch their mind from execution mode to innovation mode. And whilst execution mode is very much supply-side driven and problem-solving, the innovation mode, is very much customer-focused. It’s about finding the problems that can be solved for the customers.

Bayer’s innovation engine

In his book, Ben features the case of the very well-known German Pharmaceutical and Life Science Company, Bayer. With a very long history of scientific achievements through their R&D, their innovation has been driven by R&D. But in 2014, starting at the board level, they decided to create what “an innovation engine”. They stated that they wanted to create an organisation to elicit and leverage the capabilities of the 100,000 employees within Bayer.

The first thing they did was make the whole board responsible for innovation, so now innovation was part of the core of their strategy.

Then, they selected 80 senior managers across all the country, regions and global functions who became innovation ambassadors. They were there to support the board. And they spent most of their time with middle managers explaining why innovation is important, advocating and supporting them get trained in innovation.

The job of these middle managers was not to drive innovation but to create a formidable support structure to train and certify thousands of innovation coaches locally across the organisation.

They then created a platform called WeSolve where every employee at BSF can post a problem.

“They have 40,000 people who’ve actually engaged with the platform. But the most impressive statistic they showed me is that – apart from the fact that they have about 200 challenges–two-thirds of the solutions that are posted on the platform come from a unit or a function different from the one where the problem was posted in the first place”.

This is really a structure that starts from the board, to the ambassadors, to the coaches, to the digital platform eliciting innovation ideas from everyone.

“This is what I’m talking about when I say it’s an engine. It’s not it’s not just say: ‘oh, when you have an idea, just send it to me.’ No, this is completely structured with clear tasks, roles and responsibilities.”

Book recommendations

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