Collaboration and Co-creation – The Key to Unlocking Value

A conversation with Mehmood Khan, Global Leader of Innovation, Unilever
By Jo Grogan
"In today's global economic environment, innovation is more important than ever. The dynamics are changing rapidly, and we must innovate and adjust our offerings based on those changes, while still providing products that are more functional and affordable." Mehmood Khan

Mehmood KhanMehmood Khan is a man of action, convinced that the paths to innovation are many and require, in and of themselves, innovation. Khan, as the global Leader of Innovation and Process Development at Unilever, has the opportunity to explore the paths the innovation each day.

Unilever offers 400 brands in the home, personal care, and food production arenas, including Lipton, Slim-fast, Knorr, Bertolli, Hellman's, Carte d'Or, Ben & Jerry's, Vaseline, Lux, Ponds, Dove, and Becel/Flora.

Khan and his innovation team constantly survey the landscape, looking for innovative and new products, improvements to existing products, and ways to repackage existing products to reduce waste. At the core of this innovation is the Unilever mission to add Vitality to life by producing nutrition, hygiene, and personal care products with brands that help people feel good, look good, and get more out of life.

Khan is friendly, open, and passionate about innovation.

Jo Grogan (JG): What are the common characteristics of creative teams?

Mehmood Kahn: A lot of work is produced by creative teams. Diversity, not just of background, race, and geography, but diversity of minds is the key to the best results. These teams have a lot of self-esteem, and are open to exploring differing points of view for the same issues. This diversity leads to better solutions. The quality of output is higher.

JG: What do your innovation teams do when they reach a barrier to solving a problem, when they are stuck? How do they reach a breakthrough innovation?

Mehmood Kahn: There is no straight path. Each problem must be taken in its own context. Diverse teams are more open to solutions; they share, collaborate, work together and talk among themselves. They stay on top of new developments in the world, in technology, and with their products and problems. They find experts to help with different aspects of the problem. There is nothing these teams cannot solve, using the right methods and tools.

JG: What are the advantages of collaborative teams working from diverse backgrounds and locations to solve problems and create products and services? Can you give an example of how this might work at Unilever?

Mehmood Kahn: Our mission is to increase vitality, to help people feel good, look good, get more out of life. One example of a creative solution with far-reaching results we did not originally envision was when we were developing products to reduce cholesterol. In addition to reducing cholesterol, the products we developed lowered blood pressure and resulted in weight loss. These were additional benefits that were completely in line with our mission. This is a good example of how one business decision feeds into another. When everyone connected to a product line is open, shares knowledge, and the working climate is established for problem solving and learning, everyone benefits.

JG: What types of creativity tools and software do you use at Unilever?

Mehmood Kahn: We developed and implemented software in-house. It includes software collaboration tools and idea generation tools for use by 16,000 employees. When we are solving a problem or creating a product, we post it and share it among groups, to maximize the possibility of a positive outcome.

JG: Do you use outside resources, facilitators, or outside problem-solving teams such as those offered by

Mehmood Kahn: We bring in outside facilitators to help our creative teams. Our teams network at conferences and on the Internet to find resources to help solve problems. We use our own software to maintain confidentiality of the innovation process. Each team member has access to what they need to know.

For example, a Brand Manager will see all information pertaining to his brand for the country he managers, while a Senior Vice President will see the global picture. Our team members will examine our in-house capabilities for each project, and, based on their research of the topic, will recommend bringing in outside experts to assist in the development process. This research effort into identifying experts has been greatly enhanced by Google. The team member can put in a topic and find and verify top experts in minutes.

JG: How do you deliver innovation training? What theories and practices are used (e.g., Six Sigma, Edward DeBono)?

Mehmood Kahn: At Unilever, we constantly train to raise our capabilities. We provide internal courses on creativity and make tools available to our employees. We train in Six Sigma for brand management and to set our culture, and we use DeBono's methods for our creative processes. Our goal in training, for innovation, is to establish a common process and shared language across the world for our strategy, process, systems, project management teams, and engineering teams. When we mention the terms "stakeholder, finance, gatekeeper," they mean the same thing in India as they do in the U.K.

JG: What books or other training materials do you require employees to read?

Mehmood Kahn: Our in-house training materials are constantly updated and shared with our employees. We use our own system, which is developed and based on the best concepts, theories, and practices in use today. This is how we maintain our shared language.

JG: What is your opinion of Web sites and creative problem solving virtual environments such as

Mehmood Khan: We use these types of services, based on the need. We must be clear as to what we are using it for. We try out people on our innovation teams, and use a targeted approach to our problem solving. When we have a complex problem, it will quite often require a complex solution. Likewise, a simple problem may need a simple approach to a solution. Our project team looks at our in-house resources to see if we have the talent needed to solve a problem, and they will identify sources from outside when needed. They are constantly in touch with the marketplace and keep up with the knowledge available out there.

JG: Are there any other ideas or statements you would like to explore?

Mehmood Kahn: The big topic is collaboration and co-creation. No single company can do everything. They need to tap into other knowledge and value constantly. There are 6.7 billion people in the world. With our reach into 150 countries through our world mission – to help everyone feel good, look good, and improve their lives, we can help build better communities.

JG: In researching for this interview, I came across information about some of the work you are doing in your hometown in India. Can you tell me more about that?

Mehmood Kahn: Yes. I have been working with a group of companies to unlock the value of consumers, the power of networks, and the power of women in the Mewat (Haryana) region of India. There is great creative value and growth opportunity in developing countries. Collaboration across countries, industries, companies, and professions will be needed to create sustainable development through power collaboration and co-creation. Our goal is to make the world a better place.

JG: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and time with us today.
Mehmood Kahn: You are very welcome.

Conclusion: Innovation is very important in today's economic climate and is vital to the survival of companies and their continued growth. Innovation teams benefit from a culture of open innovation, excellent training tools and methods, a shared language, and a firm belief in the value of collaboration and co-creation. Their ability to bring in experts when needed, such as those at IdeaConnection, helps solve their problems and develop products more efficiently.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, please feel free to [CONTACT ME]. If you would like to suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please just let me know.

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Reader Comments

Thanks! I will try to do that. They aren’t insisting so much as letting me know that my behavior is hurtful to them, but it ends up at the same place.
Posted by DIYA JEE on April 11, 2011

Kudos to Unilever for getting it!

Please see Gaurav Bhalla's new book on Collaboration and Co-creation. The foreword is by the CEO of Unilever...
Posted by Christian Sarkar on December 30, 2010