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E221 | 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 organization 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- they hold the key to discovering the weaknesses in your business
  • Three skills you need to develop in order 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
  • Improve your ability to spot and develop good ideas for your business

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

Ben M. Bensaou, a professor and former Dean of Executive Education at INSEAD, is 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.

In his book, Ben M. Bensaou explains in detail a systematic approach to build, maintain, and enhance a company’s collective innovating capabilities. He identifies specific innovative practices and roles for employees at each level of the organisation, offers tools and a process methodology for innovating, and presents a host of vivid case studies that illustrate the dramatic benefits possible.

The surprising answer to innovation

Ben has been researching and teaching innovation for nearly twenty years. He engages with companies worldwide, especially in Japan. He spent a lot of time in Japan, in the Middle East, and in the US studying startups. As he did that, he got involved and ran into very traditional companies operating in established businesses that were not known for their innovation. These companies transformed themselves into innovation powerhouses.

“And that was really the surprise to me. Especially when I was in California, I was expecting looking at the usual suspects, the companies in high tech and entertainment like Apple, Tesla or Marvel, Netflix, And actually, I found that there was a completely different set of companies that we don’t hear about that they were extremely innovative.”

These traditional companies transformed themselves into innovating in a proactive and systematic way. So, Ben wanted to document their impressive stories and try to codify the lessons he learned from them to turn them into frameworks, tools and concepts to make them available for everyone. 

A different narrative about innovation

Very often, says Ben, people think that in order to innovate, you need to have a genius leaders or two. But, during his research, he found that’s not true. Instead, he found traditional, established, even centuries-old companies innovating. 

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

“I wanted to tell the story of a different narrative about innovation, which is not about the one genius, big bang disruptive innovation, but something where it was much more continuous, systematic, and it was not about changing the whole industry, but innovating in your products, in your processes, and in your functions. It was driven by everyone in the organisation.”

The two engines of innovation

In a traditional company, usually innovation is thought as something that senior leaders or a specialist or new product development team does. But, very often when Ben walks into a company and asks people who runs innovation, everybody points him to the same usual suspects, he says.  

“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 I found is that these companies operate with two engines.” 

The traditional engine is the execution engine. This is the engine that implements today’s strategy. But these companies, says Ben, have proactively created a parallel engine that he calls the innovation engine. This one is about creating and rethinking the way we do things today, creating, imagining the products of the future. 

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

So, everyone gets an opportunity to switch their mind from execution to innovation mode. Whereas execution mode is supply-side and problem-solving driven, the innovation mindset is very much customer-focused, says Ben. It’s about finding new problems we can solve for the customer.

The role of middle managers in innovation

In his book, Ben uses the example of Bayer, the German Pharmaceutical and Life Science Company. They had their innovation driven by R&D, but in 2014 they decided to create an innovation engine, starting at the board level. They wanted to create an organisation to elicit and leverage the capabilities of the 100,000 empleyes within Bayer. Now, the whole board was responsible for innovation, so innovation became part of their core strategy. 

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

The job of these middle managers was not to drive innovation, but to create a support structure. They traineda nd certified thousands of innovation coaches that were activated locally across the organisation. Then, for the frontline. 

They then created WeSolve, a digital platform where every employee at Bayer can post a problem. Ben says hat 40,000 people have engaged with the platform with problems to solve.

“But the most impressive was the data that 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. So you can see this is really structural, starting from the board to the ambassadors to the coaches to the digital platform eliciting innovation, innovation, ideas from everyone.”

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