Innovation Conversation #8 — Nicola Millson, Innovation Consultant

Image credit: Gabriel Barletta at Unsplash

Talking to Nicola was a pleasure as it brought up a topic I hadn’t thought about for a while — system change and system design. I wrote about systems, particularly human systems, a while ago and have always been fascinated by how they grow and develop. Nicola’s thoughts on the subject were a really interesting insight. It was also a joy to talk to someone who was interested in the human journey of entrepreneurship as well as the economic and commercial one — we love to tell the stories of successful entrepreneurs, but spend less time working out how more people can be helped to be successful with the right emotional and practical support. And finally, of course, the topic of tech for good is one close to my own heart.


So Nicola, tell me about The League of Intrapreneurs. What makes an Intrapreneur and why do they need a league?

We think of Intrapreneurs as people inside companies that have got a passion to create impact, as well as the influencing skills to be able to make something good happen. We’ve seen some outstanding examples: we’ve got Miriam Turner from Interface coming up with some extraordinary different ideas to be able to turn ocean plastic into carpet. She’s a great example of an Intrapreneur.

What all Intrapreneurs are doing is adding significant value to businesses whilst at the same time solving big social issues, I think that’s hugely powerful.

What they need is a few different things: first is the support of others to know that there’s other people like them and an identity. They need to know they’re not just weirdos with an idea, that there are lots of others like them all trying to do the same thing.

Second, they need others that they can learn from and with, and to go on the journey with them.

The third thing they need is some skills and some different ways of thinking, so we do things on systems thinking and influence and tribe creation to support them.

And the last thing that they need is visibility so the League of Intrapreneurs this year is launching a competition which is a way for us to be able to create visibility of entrepreneurial movement.

Do you think anybody can be an intrapreneur or is it a certain mindset or certain set of skills that people need?

It’s a tough choice to be an Intrapreneur. I think that everybody has a seed of possibility inside them but to be brave enough to buck the system for something that you believe in is a really big choice.

What sort of organisations do these people come from?

We find them in almost any organisation — the League is global now, it’s in 10 different countries and there are ambassadors and practitioners in each of those countries. We’re seeing more and more people coming out of different types of organisations that could work together to shift the system.

For example, we’ve got the Ellen McArthur Foundation linking together entrepreneurs in the plastics space with government agencies and I think that starts to get very interesting. We start to see entrepreneurs working together to form ecosystems of change agents tackling big issues. Originally we thought of intrapreneurs coming out of big companies but they could be coming out of NGOs, they could be coming out of foundations, or anywhere.

And how does the League fit in with your other work?

Essentially, I do three different things: firstly, innovation strategy, global innovation programmes and internal start-ups for large organisations.

Alongside that I’ve been working with start-ups with the idea of helping them scale up.

And finally I started thinking that we also need to bring together change agents and different people in order for the change to land somewhere, to have the skills and the mindset and the ways of working in place as this change happens. So that’s when I started getting very involved in movements for change.

The first one was Six Heads, which has been a huge amount of fun: it’s young and it’s quirky and it’s all on sustainable innovation. It’s a gathering place for professionals to share stories, to learn together, to run events for each other to test out their skills and that can be anything from perma-culture to trapeze. All of it is a way of understanding change and the self and ways to create an impact better. The second movement is the League of Intrapreneurs, and the third is the Future Academy, which works to provide capabilities required for the next economy.

So that’s really my model in terms of how I work: transform the big, scale the small and then create fertile ground for change to happen.

What kind of things does the League tackle?

We did a really interesting project with SAB Miller last year: we were asked to work with them globally to support social innovation. It was fascinating because we were working with entrepreneurs across such a range of topics: we had someone from Switzerland looking at climate change, we had somebody in South Africa looking at poverty, we had somebody else who was looking at access to markets for smallholder farmers, we had somebody else who was looking at water, the list goes on.

It was wonderful getting the feedback: one of the best quotes was somebody who said I’ve finally found meaning in what I do, I’ve got purpose in my job. I can see how I can make a difference and still do what I do day to day.

I think meaning is incredibly important, isn’t it? You get to a point in your life where you wonder why you bother, and what impact you have in the world.

It’s best to think: do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. All of us at the moment are exposed to so much horrible stuff: you know, you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing fish dying, climate change, social inequity and the death of democracy, so how do we sit around and not do something. I think that people are looking for ways they can work differently and I think companies are starting to take more responsibility. One of the ways that they can do that is by unleashing their talent.

Why do you think that needs unleashing and why now? There were huge amounts of innovation in the industrial revolution, but no one was an innovation consultant then.

We face bigger social issues than we’ve ever faced before, and I don’t think it’s just about unleashing it I think it’s also about channelling it. I don’t think we need any more flavours of soft drink, I don’t think we need any more flavours of ice cream, but I do think we need to channel ingenuity into solving some social problems — and not only solving them but reframing some of the ways that we’re operating as a society. From consumerism to community or even from consumer to citizen.

Do you think businesses are now much more interested in doing good?

A lot of it is enlightened self-interest. If you speak to the businesses pioneering this area — Marks and Spencer, Unilever — they talk about the fact that everybody wants to work with them as a result of this approach. For all businesses, being able to capture talent is important, and millennials particularly are looking for purposeful organisations to join.

When you look at indicators about employee well-being and retention, a company that provides meaning is important. It was interesting when the retail sector here was hit how quickly Marks and Spencer bounced back versus some of the other retailers, because there’s so much trust in it as a purpose-based organisation.

And is the pace of change getting faster? Do you think movements such as Tech for Good are gathering pace?

I like to think so. Think about the progression from sponsorship 20 years ago where big corporates would give money to their local football team to modern corporate social responsibility. Now we’re seeing the third wave where it’s becoming far more integrated. You see companies having to report to investors on climate change, you see organisations having to think about purpose to attract millennials, you see them looking at their supply chains differently and having different kinds of contracts to have longer term relationships, you see choice editing which is beyond commercial.

A great example is Interface, which makes floor tiles. About 20 years ago, their CEO realised he was ruining the world by running this business and he set out to completely reinvent the manufacturing of one of the most boring things ever: the carpet tile. He’s pioneered environmental standards around how carpeting works, he invented little stickies that go on the floor so that you’re not putting toxic glue down. The most recent one uses discarded fishing nets to make carpets. These discarded nets often end up floating in the sea killing fish, but now they have a value to the fishermen so they’re not being discarded.

In one of my other interviews I discussed philanthropists like Bill Gates who make a huge amount of money and then redistribute it. Is it better to make money and then redistribute or share the talent, or is it better to have a more equitable world to start with?

I’d love a more equitable world to start with, but what I believe is that business is the biggest system that we’ve got, it’s completely powerful. It links all of us and it determines and creates the world around us, so it makes sense for us to use this system differently. What I’m really engaged in is the system redesign, because I think that business could and should be the thing that solves the problems that we’ve got. It is a social construct: we just need to construct it differently.

That sounds interesting — tell me more?

My interest in systems innovation came out of the question of whether I am doing the right thing. You try and do things, but are you intervening in such a way that you are going to make a fundamental difference? I started becoming more and more interested in what the points in any kind of system are where you can create the most change and how you work that out.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about human systems is the potential for the weird and the wonderful to happen. If you have any kind of engineering system you know you hit point a and b will happen, but as soon as humans get involved you get weirdness.

In a way, the word ‘system’ is wrong: there’s something deeply organic about the way that systems operate and in the way that we as humans operate. Where I start getting interested is in how the systems are partly embedded in the past and partly in the present, and how they are embedded with stakeholders and people. What are the stories that are being told in parts of the system, and how do we humanise it in such a way that we can start to understand where some of the levers are? A lot of the levers are around mindsets and perception.

I’m a big fan of Edison: lots of people invented the light bulb but he put the entire system together to make it work as a commercial item. Often we create something and we don’t understand what the different things are that we need to build around it. He had to carry out many system interventions to get his invention integrated — he trained people and he set up schools.

I’m noticing that coming out of the best universities are amazing post-graduates in physics and engineering and mathematics. They are the creators of the future but they don’t have a huge grounding in sustainability and systems thinking. I’m meeting some that are setting up their businesses at the moment and speaking to them about unintended consequences. People are creating drones and robotics and looking at machine intelligence, and they need to understand this stuff and go into it consciously.

It’s also important to understand that there are three journeys across any innovation programme. Of course there’s the journey from the idea to the implementation, but I think there’s two other journeys that are often overlooked. One is the journey of the self: what do I want to be, where am I going with this, but also your personal resilience — how do you make sure that you look after yourself on the journey? A personal resilience plan is just as important as a business plan or a stakeholder engagement plan.

The third journey is the journey of team, how do we get like-minded people to work together, how do you set objectives and make it work for everybody. There’s enormous amounts of literature around developing ideas and commercialisation, but the weak points making things fail are around influencing those inside your company, building a team or creating the community that can drive things through.

I think that’s what’s next for me, to think about that idea.


These articles are supported by idea management platform Solverboard. I work with Solverboard as their Head of Innovation Practice, and they have kindly agreed to support this side project of mine. Do check out their suite of idea management tools for businesses of any size, their public open innovation platform Solverboard Open, or their extremely well-written blog ;-)

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