Elena Bogus
May 12, 2020 · 13 min read

7 learnings out of building a corporate innovation culture

If I was to introduce to you our story with innovation, I would start with once upon a time there was an idea… Because ideas are right in the center of this story and also because it all started as an idea.

I like to say about myself that I am a long time HR professional who turned to the innovation side. For the last 6 years I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in building an innovation culture at METRO SYSTEMS, working with exciting people and their ideas, organising innovation events and workshops while learning, discovering and experimenting a lot in the meantime. Since about a year I’ve been in the driving seat as Product Owner supporting the corporate innovation initiative at METRO SYSTEMS in a dedicated domain in our company, called ONNIX.

Is this a good time for innovation?

Let’s talk a little bit about the context we find ourselves in. Right now there is a pandemic going on. HORECA is now one of the hardest hit industry on the globe by this pandemic. Restaurants and hotels have lost most of their clients with on-premises activities being completely shut down. Right now people as well as businesses struggle to ajust and adapt to a new life, very different than the one we were used to have.

So, is this a good time for innovation?

I believe that, despite the horrors and the tragedies that are happening in the world, this is the most exciting time for change, because this is when paradigms shift and rock-hard, unshaken perspectives about life completely transform. We can now have a hard look at our own limitations and discover ourselves in a different context.

What I see in the world is a multitude of creative solutions that are being put to the test and are solving some of our problems, right now. I see Businesses that manage to continue operating via the online. I see Events that reinvent the experience they are offering. Farmers find a new power by directly connecting with, otherwise hard to reach, end consumers. I see Schools discovering the online learning and its potential for a different learning experience.The best solutions will have to pass the test of time and will become a part of the new normal.

So, the answer is Yes. I believe that now is the perfect time to talk about change and transformation. Wich leads me to the first learning that we can take out from the very situation we find ourtselves in.

Innovation thrives on good timing

Timing means context, when the circumstances of an event are perfect to create something meaningful. Right now the problem is very visible, the impact is on the very innovator, and the motivation to solve what needs to be solved is that much more. Right now, timing means that creativity meets with motivation and execution to create new solutions.

Takeaways:

Stay connected with the world. If you are in the context that you are the person building the culture of change in your company my first advice would be to stay connected with all that is happening in the world in order to identify quickly opportunities.

Re-evaluate. What you can do is maybe revise some of your old ideas and see if they now fit more with the context. For instance, just last year we were discussing about the possibility to create online design thinking wks, because we were struggling with the presence of different people from different areas in order to take advantage of the diversity that we needed for these workshops. But the timing seemed never right to do it. Now, it looks more appealing.

Time is the focus of the next learning as well, not only time as opportunity but time as duration plays a vital part in building an innovation culture.

Building innovation takes time

For this learning I will take you through some of the milestones that we have had during the 6 years of our experience with innovation.

In 2014 a group of people gathered around a challenge: how to become an innovative company? I was part of the HR team and interested in all new initiatives, as they allowed space for creativity and experimentation. We became the Innovation Group, volunteering to work on this topic.

I remember, we were very unsure about how to start so we started by asking ourselves “what is innovation”. It felt like a good question. This led us to implement the first idea management platform, Call For Innovation, an online space where our colleagues could publish their own ideas or support other colleagues by participating in their projects. At that time we also launched the first physical space where our colleagues could spend time working, connecting, brainstorming.

In 2015 the company embarked on the biggest transition yet, to Agility, where people would change how they worked, how they approached their roles in their teams and their products. Innovation was supporting this change and it also benefited a lot from it.

Ideas were coming but we needed to focus more on supporting them to make progress, so, we started a long and fruitful collaboration with an external consultant, Lucian Ghinda, who became our Innovation Master.

We started organising big events like hackathons and coding competitions where our colleagues could find excitement and inspiration.

We did the first Design Thinking program in 2016 with the company trainees. That was a cool exprience we learned a lot together with our youngest colleagues. We went to Metro stores for the first time to know our clients.

We started organising Pitching Events where idea owners would pitch their ideas to the company CEO. Little by little, the road that would take us to becoming a company of why-not-ers, as our CEO used to say, became a little more clear.

In 2017 we created our next challenge. We called it “The Cool Kid in the Group”, with METRO SYSTEMS being this cool company of tech-savvy, curious people, who learn and experiment with new ideas that will benefit their users. We started becoming more strategic in our services, focusing our activity and events in 3 areas: learning, experimenting and doing.

Last year we officially launched ONNIX, the innovation business domain, together with our colleagues from Metronom. Together we are stronger, more focused and commited to supporting ideas to become business products with budget, resources, business expertise, connections. The domain is split into 2 products:

one is focusing on supporting our colleagues to build new products out of their ideas, and the other one is Tech’nTrade, the incubator for startups focused on finding and supporting the best retail startups on the Romanian market.

This is in a a nutshell our journey so far, and it took us about 6 years to get where we are. Where we are now? One of our product teams has recently won a european retail innovation award for one of their solutions. Some of the Ideas from Innovation Days events are aleady being used by our clients. Other ideas are being already used by our colleagues. Our innovators are speaking at conferences and inspire others. Design thinking, lean startup and discovery are becoming more and more the way to work. But we couldn’t have done it without the full dedication and support of our company CEO and the senior leadership team.

Takeaways:

Now is the best time to start! Yesterday was the perfect time, tomorrow may be too late.

Check in regularly with your business sponsors. Keep them close and engaged with what you are doing they hold the company vision.

For participants:

Experiment as much as possible. Take part in a lot of experiments, events in your company, learn to take out your own benefits out of it.

Allow yourself to get hooked. Stay curious and enjoy, take your time. Wait for inspiration and allow yourself to get used to the new and get hooked by doing new things in a different way.

Effort drives acceptance and reward (not the other way around).

In 2016 we challenged our company CEO with some rather disruptive ideas that we believed would take the company closer to the goal of becoming and being recognised as an innovative company. Some of those proposals were met with enthusiasm like the Innovation Kit, a resource package that people could access after pitching their ideas to management. The package would contain 5 days to work only on developing a prototype and a small budget for some resources.

But in the beginning we were pitching, what seemed at that time, crazy things: we pitched a collaboration with startups, an R&D team, an internal incubator for our colleagues so that they can experience first hand the start-up world. We wanted to take our people out of daily activity and have them focus for 3 to 6 months only on development of their ideas. Crazy, right? Mostly the answer for them, at that time, was NO. Why was NO? Because we were suggesting abstract ideas, we wanted leadership to say Yes to an idea that was too far from where we were in terms of effort.

But then we started doing more and more concrete projects, like Innovation Days, which is a 3 days hackathon where people work on developing and pitching a business prototype.

And now, 4 years later, after all these activities, the incubator for retail start-ups is a reality and we are preparing to start the 1st internal incubator of ideas. All this wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t first effort put into showing people that we are ready to do it.

Takeaways:

“No” might be temporary. When you pitch an idea to senior leadership you really need to think that it is not only about the idea, you need to prove that you are prepared to put the effort in and that you can do it. Clients pay for solutions not abstract ideas. They do not pay for innovation (for time for innovation) unless they think/believe it works! so, keep coming with crazy ideas.

Be yourself prepared. Make your homework: understand what you are suggesting, be prepared to tackle hard things, answer sincerely what you know and what you don’t know.

Invest in your motivation. Things will not always work as planned and you will need to put in extra effort, so, dose your effort and invest in your own motivation.

For participants:

Be part of it for the fun of it. Enjoy the ride and have fun while doing it.

Expect the unknown and chaos and some effort to overturn them, it may be about time, about what to do next, about your own knowledge etc.

Focusing on success narrows the opportunity realm.

If we had set out from the beginning to launch business products, we would have failed lamentably and quickly. Remember when we talked about how we started with launching the ideas management platform? What kind of ideas do you think were there in the very begining? Let me give you some examples: a shower for cyclists, food truck in the parking lot, more colours in the meeting areas, more flowers …

We decided together with our CEO that we support them all, no matter if they were business related or not. And now we have showers and lovely colourful open spaces…

Instead, what we did was we asked them to think more about the idea, to make a more detailed description of it and to think also of the benefits that it may bring. We asked them to take an in-depth look at the problem that they were solving. Next we asked them to work on developing a proof of concept, and then we asked them to do a pitching in front of our CEO — that was totally out of the comfort zone for most engineers and technical people — and to go further and develop an MVP and then to deploy it to our customers.

We needed first to show our colleagues what it meant to be part of an innovation project, we needed them to go through the experience, to see what were the challenges as innovator, we wanted them to find out by themselves whether the idea was actually good and take their own decisions.

But, what I am trying to say is that if at that moment we were going to judge all ideas by business opportunity and value we should have dismissed them all.

Takeaways:

Be patient and be inclusive with the initiative your colleagues have. Just let them experience everything.

Mindset is more important. It is more important to educate a mindset of being an idea owner that what is the content of the idea

Be more a partner than a judge. The judge should be the users and market.

For participants:

Focus on the now. Do great work for the next step in your project, do not put mental energy and motivation in long term planning and expectations.

Focus on learning. It is not about the results but more about the journey, in the end a good idea will find the right context.

If you think that success in innovation means good business ideas, well …

Innovation is more than an idea.

Our platform of ideas is hosting many, in different stages of development. Some of them are there for some time, some of them are on their way to becoming a business product. The percentage leans towards the ones that are not making it, due to many reasons — to elaborate in a future article. So, what do you think we did in the beginning? We tried to take the role of idea owner and solve their problems ourselves. But we quickley learned that an idea (99.9999% of time) will not live without its idea owner’s effort and time.

So it’s not just the idea, it’s also about it’s creator.

We noticed over the years that some of our colleagues were genuinely attracted to our events so that they became our regular clients. Some of them became, after some time, part of the innovation team while remaining at the same time consumers of innovation events.

These people are special. They have an ability to motivate themselves, a desire to go above and beyond and something that I call grit, or strength of character. The most successful innovation projects are led by these people. They like to do new things, they like to challenge themselves, they understand the power of selling an idea, they are not afraid to put themselves out there, they are not afraid of problems and they manage to deal with the unknown and the chaos very well. And they have fun!

Takeaways:

Adapt your hiring process to look for innovators. You need to adapt your hiring processes to accommodate the innovator profile from the beginning. We added innovation related competences to how we recruit people, in our interview processes a long time ago.

Keep close to your innovators, they will be the ones who will learn the most and will eventually offer the success stories that will inspire others.

For participants:

Only you can make your idea happen. Understand that if you have an idea you are the only one who can make it happen!

We don’t know better.

This is a learning about us, as organisers and what I am about to say applies to organisers as well as participants.

Last year we started focusing more on product innovation and we started a collaboration with one product team that approached us for guidance.They wanted to use the knowledge they acquired during one of our design thinking events in order to challenge their own product.

For this project we actually approached the team with the mindset of a startup, our services being the product and the team being the client, our user. We needed to understand our colleagues and empower them to do innovation while they were watching us going through the phases of the project.

The team really liked this approach, we interviewed them and they wanted to do the same kind of interviews with their own users. This led them to discussing about who their users were. A long fruitful discussion and a realisation at the same time. And after the first meeting the team organised interviews and we only gave them some support as to how to do them. The discussion following this first activity was full of energy and insights. They even decided on the idea that they will test with their users in the next iterations. And everything that followed were immediate steps following last learnings.

They knew their users better than us, they knew their users problems better than us, they knew solutions better than us. We were there only to give them the tools to work on the best solution.

Takeaways:

Be humble in front of your users. Do not assume you know everything or anything. Your mission is to empower people to do it on their own.

Live the mindset you want to build. Only by experiencing on your own you can help others.

Show them a vision, not manage projects. You should make them dream about the endless possibilities out there, not manage innovation projects.

There is no “one size fits all”.

There is an abundant amount of literature about innovation and guides about how to approach corporate innovation. All the articles you will find we’ll tell you what worked for a specific company — for Google it’s 20%, for other companies it’s open innovation, for others it’s about using and funding R&D teams, for others is opening an accelerator for start-ups. But these articles will not tell what will work for your own context, for your own company.

All companies are a unique mixture of their own flavors. It may help to learn about what others did but what will really work for you and your company you can only find out by discovery. Just like an innovator, or a start-up. Your learnings may be unique because innovation lives in the right context. We are still discovering things about our journey and we still face a lot of unknowns. And we are fine with that.

Takeaways:

There is no formula for innovation. Do your own stuff, discover your own mix, say yes to new ideas and start discovering your next steps.

Discover the context of your company. You are in the context of your company that is dynamic and that transforms over time, step by step, get to know and understand this context.

Being part of this in the last 5 years, has taught me to take things step by step, put in the effort, keep a beginner’s mindset and have fun.

And I look at the world and I see a lot of playground for innovation, a lot of experiments, a lot of disruption ready to happen. The world is different and will be different and this is ok.

So, if you are looking for a sign to start working on the innovation mindset in your company, this is the time to do it.

METRO SYSTEMS Romania

METRO SYSTEMS Romania Engineering

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