The road to innovation needs stirring.
I was always impressed by the story our biology teacher put in our minds on how margarine is made. To simplify the process he told us it is mixing water with oil, what of course, as such, is not possible. From our history teacher, I was around 16 at that time, I understood that margarine became a necessity during the depression and the world wars as there was a shortage of real butter. To top it off, for years I saw advertising that promoted margarine over butter for health reasons. It never convinced me, so I am very happy with my preference of butter, which we buy at the weekly local pazar, or market in English. Margarine was definitely an innovation and people like Napoleon III helped in promoting it. He even held a contest, a hackathon already in those days, to come up with a replacement for butter, serving the soldiers and the poor people.
Innovation is driven by an economical impulse and a strategic necessity. I don’t think Napoleon III was using the word innovation at that time, nor did he ask his own staff to come up with an idea. He asked it to all those who had ideas and was ready to reward them. Making margarine is more complex than just stirring and surely way more complicated than making butter, something you can do yourself at home. A French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, invented a substance he called oleomargarine, shortened later to margarine, and is all about chemical processes. That patent lays today in the drawers of Unilever by the way.
Transformation was there before Napoleon III and definitely continued after him. Sending out his invitation for the hackathon was not by email. Today we consider email as a normal way of communication. I still remember Window 3.11 but not anymore what program I used when sending emails. In those days especially word processors and spreadsheets were becoming very popular. I was a product of art school and trying to make money with creative solutions, impressed by technology. So I went to Apple Belgium, we are talking late 80’s, and I explained to the marketing manager that I could produce a CD with all the spec sheets of the printers and computers they were selling. No more warehouses filled with printed materials, orders per 500 sheets, no separated accounting, no high transport costs anymore. I was not a big company at the time, just on my own, knowing some people who could pull this off in Filemaker with a nice user interface. Which I learned after I sold the idea to Apple Belgium. We didn’t talk about digitalisation or innovation. I was just trying to sell services to make money and for Apple Belgium, I brought a solution that was cheaper, smarter and at the same time could demonstrate the quality of their printers in the shop.
This brings us back to today where we have fancy words for all these interactions and even methods like Business Canvas and Design Thinking. Looking at transformation, the biggest impact on a worldwide basis is without any doubt the digitalisation, followed by digitisation, enabling new business models, change the way consumers interact with brands, even legal and government bodies are today impacted. The result is Digital Transformation, accelerating and illuminating the already existing and ongoing horizontal and global processes of change in society as a whole.
Although all the buzz words are known by most stakeholders the implementation has not even started. We are still using the same examples, like Google or Tesla, but we don’t see it in the companies next door.
When I went to Apple, they could easily do this themselves, if the word intrapreneurship existed, they could have used it. Apple is, directly and indirectly, involved in digital transformation, but as a company, in those days, just like any big SME full of personal agendas and gatekeepers.
Digital transformation and intrapreneurship should lead to innovation, that is the setup today C-levels have in their KPIs worldwide. Investors, board members and CEOs go to conferences, read Wall Street Journal and Forbes and are bombarded with the same messages, so they decide they need it too. Imagine the execution comes to mid-level where employees already have a full plate and then they need to implement the buzz words. Don’t expect miracles and as Steve Blank points out, failure is part of the process in finding the right product/market fit. Although failure is not an option, they are already into intrapreneurship without knowing it. The SMEs in the meantime are just listening, ignoring the new reality in front of them. The hard part is not the technology or organising internal hackathons but the mindset and the internal organisation. Have you ever seen fail 2 times this year in your personal KPIs talking to HR to get your bonus? I asked a big corporate who was organising breakfasts for C level and high level managers in the company inviting startups showing off. I asked if all these managers also use business canvas themselves to understand the startup mindset. 2 big eyes stared at me. Off course not, they know everything, you can not make them do this. Silence from my end.
Innovation is part of the search making your company and product/service unique, beat the competition, grow and make profit. It is not an emotional value when you try to describe the goals of your company, it is a necessity. Weirdly enough, when trying to implement digital transformation and intrapreneurship the same gatekeepers stand in your way. The change both imply, DT and Intrapreneurship, is big and should be supported and driven by the board and C-levels. While going through the decision and implementation process HR might need to fire people and change by the right profiles, board members will need to replace CEOs. Appointing an Innovation Manager is NOT enough, he or she needs more than a desk and a phone. All certainties, a huge overhead cost and treat, must be reconsidered. Tesla is a great example. Any big car manufacturer could come up with an electric car, but change in a big organisation is not welcomed, not to say banned. Again the economic reality will clean up the mess, the survivors are those who embraced the obvious.
Digital transformation and Intrapreneurship, and see this broad, from the hackathons to CVCs to accelerator programs, go hand in hand as both start from the same mindset. Innovate to start or continue a successful and sustainable business. Bottomline, there is no need to put packaging paper and a ribbon around it, but changing old habits can be hard. Making margarine is about stirring components. So let us keep stirring in order to create the innovation we need.
Patrick Bosteels, co-founder Stage-Co and CoderDojo Turkiye