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Lee Seok Hwai


The Really Simple Steps to Creating an Innovation Engine

Give employees permission to generate ideas, nudge them in the right direction, then get out of the way

Published: Monday, December 5, 2022 - 12:02

Think innovation, and what comes to mind? For many, it invariably evokes big names like Apple and Tesla, their epoch-defining products ranging from the smartphone to electric vehicles, and genius leaders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. But is innovation only for the select few?

Not at all, according to Ben M. Bensaou, INSEAD professor of technology management, and Asian business and comparative management. During a recent Thinkers50 webinar, Bensaou stressed that innovation isn’t just about radical creativity or breakthrough products. It can be a systematic habit applied to a company’s internal processes and functions. It has the potential to bring joy to both customers and noncustomers, i.e., suppliers, retailers, regulators, and other players in a company’s business ecosystem.

In short, said Bensaou, anyone can innovate, and they can innovate in everything.

“Many people have this idea that you need to have a genius leader or to be a startup to innovate. It’s not true,” says Bensaou, whose book Built to Innovate (McGraw Hil, 2021) demystifies innovation and shows organizations how they can develop an innovation engine.

Even traditional or centuries-old companies are able to innovate, he says. “This is innovation driven by everyone in the organization, not just the genius leader or R&D capability.”

The tools of innovation

To get there, companies should first recognize that every employee has the potential to generate ideas and, importantly, give them the permission to do so. Bensaou said he tells senior leaders or middle managers, “If you want your people to innovate, just give them permission and get out of the way.”

The innovative potential of each employee stems from the fact that everyone has a customer, Bensaou noted, whether it’s an external customer or an internal one in the form of other departments or business units. Innovation—or innovating, as Bensaou prefers to call it, to stress the behavior rather than its result—then boils down to how the company can create value for the customer.

Employees don’t just need permission to innovate, but the tools to do so as well. Bensaou has a simple recommendation: Learn to listen to three things. The first is what he calls the voice of the customer. Listening to the voice of the customer means seeking to understand, with empathy, the customer’s likes and dislikes, pain points, and wishes.

The second one is the silence of the customer. Bensaou explains: “This is the need or the problem the customer doesn’t tell you. . .  either because they’re not aware of it or because they don’t think it is your problem to solve.”

Take Kordsa, a Turkish manufacturer of tire-reinforcing fabric. The company would send cross-disciplinary teams to customers’ plants for days at a time, said Bensaou, during which team members interviewed and observed employees to better understand their lives and their “jobs to be done.” On one such mission, a Kordsa team noticed that the plant’s workers were unloading huge rolls of fabric with much difficulty.

“The customer never told them about that problem,” says Bensaou. But through listening to the “silence” of the customer, the Kordsa team developed a small routine that enabled the client company to perform the same unloading chore with one worker instead of three, and in just 12 minutes instead of 90.

Kordsa’s experience also highlights how innovation need not be radical, says Bensaou. “This is not changing the structure of the industry. The innovation can be in the process.”

Finally, frontline employees need to learn from noncustomers, a term Bensaou uses to refer to suppliers, retailers, logistics companies, regulators, influencers, subscribers, and other stakeholders of the company. “Look for weak signals—discover whether there’s somebody within your ecosystem who could benefit from innovation,” he says.

He cited the example of Ecocem, a Dublin-based cement manufacturer. Spurred by founder and managing director Donal O’Riain, the small company developed a cement substitute that was just as strong as traditional cement products but with a much smaller carbon footprint. O’Riain understood that for Ecocem’s product to stand out from the competition, the company needed to win over the industry regulators, who are powerful market influencers. “This is creating value for the regulators, not the customers,” says Bensaou.

O’Riain took more than four years to do this, including roping in scientists as part of efforts to convince French regulators to certify Ecocem’s product as high-quality cement. The effort paid off: Regulatory approval paved the way for the product to be accepted around the world. The company is now firmly positioned as an environmentally conscious organization with a range of innovations that are helping customers meet their key sustainability targets.  

Middle managers are the spark

While the success of Ecocem and Kordsa seem to be driven by top leaders, middle managers are really the spark of any organization’s innovation engine, said Bensaou. All they need to do is to ignite the desire to innovate among their reports by giving them permission to innovate and, when they come up with ideas, nudge them in the right direction.

A Japanese manager who trained under Bensaou did just that with his team. He kickstarted a culture of innovation with a simple behavioral change: Whenever one of them raised an idea, he would acknowledge it and support it by saying, “Thank you for giving me the idea.”

Before long, more and more members were speaking up and approaching him with ideas. So he took it a step further by asking them to ponder why a customer would like their idea, and why the company should invest in it.

“A middle manager can, with micro behaviors, small things... change the culture in the team,” Bensaou says. He suggested that managers integrate innovating into frontline workers’ regular routines. For example, make it a requirement that they spend two hours with a customer every month to listen to their needs, spoken or unspoken. The rewards will come soon enough.

First published Nov. 9, 2022, on INSEAD’s Knowledge blog.


About The Author

Lee Seok Hwai’s picture

Lee Seok Hwai

Lee Seok Hwai is a senior editor at INSEAD Knowledge.


Innovation and Quality

Very good article.  During 40 years in manufacturing I used to call this the American way.  I came to expect operators to tweak the process.  The best ones kept notebooks in their lockers for future reference.  Some would tell you "we tried that and it doesn't work".  But some would share.  Rules against process changes were often ignored.  Given my experience in technical and quality assurance work,  I end up with two statements, the first attributed to Deming:

Uncontrolled Variation is the Enemy of Quality

Is Innovation an enemy of quality?  Don't see how variation can be avoided for innovation purposes.

The second is my own:

Uniformity is the Enemy of Knowledge©

I agree with both statements.  It is the wise manager who can keep them in balance.