Appendix: Establishing a Culture of Innovation

Continuing a practice initiated several years ago, an optional workshop based on innovation studies was held for those arriving early on the afternoon before Innovation Day.  “Establishing a Culture of Innovation” was based on recent interviews, sponsored by the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), of executives from companies with a demonstrated history of commercializing new innovations. The workshop presented early findings of the IRI study. Executives from several of the participating companies shared real-life examples from their organizations.

Workshop Leader: Pam Henderson, President, New Edge
Panelists: Monty Alger, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Air Products and Chemicals
Stacey Balderson, Global Strategy Leader, DuPont
Ann Burnell, Director, Advanced Programs and Innovation, SABIC Innovative Plastics

Thematic questions included the following:

  • What differentiates organizations with a strong record of breakthrough innovations?
  • How do they identify and commercialize successful opportunities?
  • How do they achieve balance between “technology push” and “market pull”?
  • What are the tools and specific mechanisms that have shown success?

Henderson began the workshop with an overview of emerging practices to encourage breakthrough innovation. These included

  • the mapping of technical, societal, and industry trends to gain early market insight;
  • the practice of open innovation; and
  • the provision to researchers of adequate creative time and space.

She provided descriptors of characteristics for organizational structure, market-research functioning, corporate culture, and innovation strategy that can place an organization on a scale of least to most sophisticated in innovation management. Henderson went on to talk about opportunity landscaping, a tool to drive innovation that starts with opportunities rather than ideas. Using an example of an imaginary consumer-products company, she illustrated the process with useful visual tools to articulate gaps in the marketplace for insect-control products.

The first panelist, Monty Alger, discussed innovation management at Air Products and Chemicals. He had concluded, based on historical patterns for development of new technology platforms over several decades, that the time from idea to commercialization
was compressing while the lifetimes of new platforms were also becoming shorter.

Innovation Day 2011, Photograph by Conrad Erb

In response, it was necessary to implement a clear, defined process. A dedicated team (later nicknamed the Dream Team) was formed to generate and validate new ideas for growth. Alger described how the team was staffed and organized, and gave specific examples of ideas that were developed and evaluated. One insight gained from the process was the need to eliminate bad ideas early. The Dream Team was generally able to speed up the process of implementing innovations.

Stacey Balderson followed with an example of opportunity-driven innovation in DuPont’s Building Products Division. She introduced the concept of “disruptive market research.” This practice used face-to-face discussions of interviews with industry members. The interviewing team contained researchers who participated in the calls, and, although interviews were meant to be unstructured, they followed a carefully developed protocol as the goal was an understanding of an entire industry culture. Balderson shared question lists and hints for conducting the interviews. She then presented a specific example that resulted in the formation of a building science‒engineering service. Interviews revealed that architects, engineers, and contractors lacked knowledge and the ability to integrate the optimization of energy use into the design of building systems. In the end DuPont worked with the industry and the Department of Energy to develop the “Building America” program.

The final panelist, Ann Burnell from SABIC Innovative Plastics, provided another example of connecting to emerging trends. In another variant of disruptive market research, SABIC Plastics created cross-functional teams to view the “ecosystem” for an industry segment and to bring an early market focus. Burnell also stressed the importance of including technologists in the teams interviewing industry experts. In SABIC’s process, teams were formed for a specific project and then disbanded. This practice allowed more researchers to gain experience and carry back the learning to the bench. Burnell emphasized the need to focus on areas that align with a company’s capabilities and appetite for risk.

The workshop closed with general questions from the attendees. Topics included the following:

  • What are the benefits of and drawbacks to having a small, dedicated innovation team as opposed to a general responsibility of all researchers?
  • Who funds general, long-range innovation or, in this case, something like a Dream Team?
  • How can companies provide researchers with free time to innovate?
  • How does a company make a decision about the timing of killing bad ideas—when is too early or not early enough?