Innovation Leaders

Interview with Jean-Philippe Deschamps, Author of Innovation Leaders; How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation
By Vern Burkhardt
Innovation leaders relentlessly stimulate, steer and sustain innovation in their companies. They deploy different strategies that require different innovation leadership skills to ensure their companies succeed. In Innovation Leaders, Jean-Philippe Deschamps reveals how companies at different stages of their innovation learning are building favorable innovation cultures.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You wrote Innovation Leaders around one main idea – the belief that innovation requires a specific form of leadership, distinct from other types of leadership. In writing this book you conducted extensive research. Would you talk about what intrigued you most in your research on innovation?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps photoJean-Philippe Deschamps: The idea of this book is not born out of "traditional research", I mean academic research. It is the result of close to 35 years of actual practice trying to help companies improve their innovation effectiveness. Of course, I completed the insights I gained through interviews with a number of companies, but the observations I made about the specific form of leadership that fosters innovation came from observing actual leaders in action.

Some of these leaders were impressive in their ability to marshal the creative spirits of their staff and to encourage them to take risks and implement their ideas. They were role models of innovation leaders.

Others, who might have been good leaders in other areas, were either too focused on reaching operational excellence, thus not interested in innovation, or unable to accept the uncertainty of innovation projects. Bob Tomasko, a very successful management author, refers to both types as "growers" and "fixers". What intrigued me most in my practice was that, within the same company, these two types of leaders could co-exist without triggering a question within top management as to why certain units were so much more innovative than others!

VB: What initially led to your interest in the topic of innovation, and what has sustained that interest?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: In 1968, upon graduating from business school, I joined Arthur D. Little, arguably the most innovative consulting firm in the world. At that time, exploring the moon had become the most exciting scientific and human breakthrough, and I learned that it was a former member of that firm who had advised President Kennedy on how to land a man on the moon! That impressed me a lot! Arthur D. little was also developing scientific instruments that were actually used on the Apollo program. The whole company radiated with technological innovation and that fascinated me and gave me the innovation bug that I've kept over the past 40 years.

VB: You are Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at the International Institute for Management Development – IMD. Do you find that the environment of Lausanne, which is located on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, inspires creativity and innovative thinking?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: People who don't know much about Switzerland – who see the country producing only chocolate and cuckoo clocks – cannot imagine the extent of creative resources and scientific skills of the Swiss. IMD's neighbor in Lausanne, the Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne, EPFL in French, is one of the world's top technical universities, similar in reputation to MIT or Stanford, although smaller.

This university generates a lot of start-ups, and each year IMD launches a start-up competition that attracts about sixty small companies, many of them from the neighborhood. The fifteen or so winners are offered a free four month coaching program by teams of MBAs and faculty, to help them with the business side. So, after all, Lausanne is not a bad place for studying innovation in practice.

VB: You started your career as a commercial attaché in the New York City office of the French Embassy in the United States. How long were you an attaché, and were those exciting and interesting times?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Being in New York City was a very exciting experience for any young Frenchman in the mid sixties. My job was very concrete: helping French consumer goods companies enter the U.S. market and establish a permanent presence in the U.S. This was an exciting job that lasted a bit more than two years.

I left it to attend INSEAD, the European business school. (Vern's note: INSEAD is the French Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires, or in English the European Institute of Business Administration. It is considered one of the world's leading business schools.)

VB: In Innovation Leaders you say, "the first role of an innovation leader is to breed or attract others to take on leadership roles, propagate innovation values, and support concrete projects." Why is that their first role?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: An isolated innovation leader – except if he or she is the CEO – cannot bring about lasting change alone, particularly in large mature companies. You need a coalition of leaders to introduce an innovation-oriented process and culture. This is why innovation leaders will generally try to identify, attract and develop other leaders who will carry the flag with them and leverage their efforts.

VB: You say some companies launch major innovations with a top down approach that doesn't sustain itself, while others take a low-key approach to innovation by looking for low-hanging fruit or fixing up deficient parts of their innovation process. And that neither sustains innovation. What prevents these approaches from succeeding in the long term?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Innovation takes time to bear fruit and this is why persistence is so important. Many companies occasionally initiate a top-down innovation drive, typically when they feel hard-pressed by competitors, but these efforts won't change the situation if they are not sustained. Similarly, small ad-hoc efforts to fix product creation, function by function, will generally be too limited in scope to succeed in creating a world-class innovation capability. Management must decide whether innovation is a core growth driver for the company, and if it is, it needs to manage it seriously, as a core process.

VB: The 3M company deploys the "15% rule", which other companies, like Google, have emulated. What advice would you give corporate leaders who say in today's financially troubled times they cannot afford this "luxury", and they don't think this rule would work in their industry? (Vern's note: every researcher or engineer at 3M is to devote 15% of their time pursuing personal research interests, without the need for supervisory approval. It has contributed to a culture that encourages innovation, even though business pressures often don't permit all of the researchers and engineers to take that much time out of their work day. Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on personal projects.)

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Innovation takes time and that time is "productive time", not a "luxury"; there is no way to escape this fact of life. Ideas may be generated spontaneously during working hours, but the transformation of these ideas into business concepts, and their implementation, will definitely require time away from running current business.

Even time lost on a failed project is valuable if it leads to learning.

If you want to ensure that "innovation time" is not wasted, you should first ensure that your innovation priorities – where you need innovation – are widely understood and accepted. Then you want to build effective supporting mechanisms for your entrepreneurs.

VB: You say bottom-up innovation leaders are found at various management levels in different types of companies, and their commitment to innovation often occurs without the blessing of senior management. Would you agree that increasingly a prerequisite for senior executives should be that they are outstanding innovation leaders, rather than leaving this role to bottom-up innovation?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Corporate leaders who want to act as innovation leaders should recognize the benefits of bottom-up innovation and its requirements. Bottom-up innovation will only occur if entrepreneurial-type people feel empowered to come up with innovative ideas and implement them. The role of the senior innovation leaders is to proactively create the conditions and nurture the climate under which such bottom-up initiatives can take place. Then entrepreneurs will feel supported. It is not a "laissez faire" attitude on the part of senior innovation leaders, but a positive reinforcement of that type of innovation.

VB: As a company that supports bottom up innovation, Toyota generates more than two million ideas a year from staff. More than 95% of the workforce makes idea contributions, at the rate of over 30 suggestions per year, per worker. Is the innovation relationship between Toyota and its workers an indication of why this automaker is succeeding while others are not? Or are there other more important business practices that are making Toyota so successful?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: There are, of course, many factors explaining Toyota's relative success. Many observers point out that its' unique lean manufacturing system, the famous "Toyota Production System", is one of them. One of the strengths of that production system is the notion of "kaizen" or continuous improvement. Toyota's unique idea generation approach is what feeds that continuous improvement philosophy.

VB: Some companies in support of bottom up innovation set ambitious targets for business units, expressed as a given percentage of sales that must come from new products. What are the advantages of this approach to innovation? What are the disadvantages?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: The main advantage of this approach is it makes business unit managers aware of their organic growth responsibilities without too much interference from corporate management regarding how they achieve their objective. It works only if this measurement is treated as seriously as other more financial targets in the balanced score cards of business unit managers, and in their performance appraisals.

There are two main disadvantages of that approach. It's only relevant for product or service innovations – it doesn't apply to process and other forms of innovation. And it can lead to endless discussions about what is a "new product"! This has to be clearly defined to prevent managers from playing games and counting minor product variations as "new products".

VB: Some companies appoint idea advocates or idea sponsors in various parts of their organization. You say these individuals are chosen for their open-mindedness and strong corporate support. Their objective is to provide staff with an alternative and safe conduit for submitting ideas. Can this concept work in small to medium sized organizations?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: This approach is generally more helpful in large companies with multiple hierarchical layers, where the bosses of idea generators can discourage them from pursuing their ideas without top management knowing about it. In that case "idea advocates" provide a safe conduit for ideas that by-pass the hierarchy.

It is applicable in smaller companies as well, although in such companies it is usually easier for people to access higher management levels and even the CEO.

VB: Would you describe how Tetra Pak, the liquid food packaging company, effectively uses an intranet-based ideas management system.

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: The Tetra Pak intranet idea management system is quite simple in its approach. By clicking on either one of two buttons, "I have an idea" or "I need an idea", users are put in contact with an "idea matchmaker" who will connect the idea generator with either a direct user or with a team of advisers, who will, in turn, help the idea submitter refine and document his/her idea for further evaluation and decision. In addition the Tetra Pak on-line ideation system provides a lot of user-friendly tools for guiding managers through the various idea generation tools and techniques.

VB: A structured idea management process is being used by companies like Logitech and Philips to generate innovation. This concept is much more than applied brainstorming. What are its benefits?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: A structured idea management system is an elaborate process to generate, collect, enrich, screen and cluster ideas into pre-concepts, then to refine, evaluate and rank these pre-concepts, turning them into validated concepts ready for innovation program planning. Brainstorming may be part of this approach, but it is only one among several ways to generate ideas. Structured idea management adds discipline and rigor to what is essentially a creative process.

VB: In the long term, the most effective way to stimulate bottom-up innovation is to make the company culture more conducive to creativity and entrepreneurship. You say management can use a number of tools to stimulate innovation, including boosting organizational creativity, mobilizing teams of champions, promoting a customer-centric attitude, and encouraging a "can-do" attitude. If you were picking the most important of these tools, which would it be?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: I find that the last two elements in this list – promoting a customer-centric attitude and encouraging a "can-do" climate – are the most critical.

Companies rarely lack organizational creativity. If they do, an immersion of product development teams into the real world of their customers will generally boost internal creativity. And if the climate is right, champions will naturally emerge.

VB: Would you describe the "broad-bandwidth" manager?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: A "broad-bandwidth" manager is someone who is curious in his or her interests, broad in his or her thinking – who sees the forest and not just the trees. This type of manager is capable of detecting early signals of paradigm or market changes, and of understanding the business implications of these changes in terms of opportunities or threats.

VB: Innovation benefits are never instantaneous. What are the implications of this for innovation initiatives that are being introduced into an organization?

Innovation Leaders book coverJean-Philippe Deschamps: Innovation benefits are never instantaneous. Innovation drives, particularly if they aim at creating entirely novel product categories, will take years to come to fruition. This is why you need consistency of purpose, and why management persistence is so essential.

Not all innovations have a long time horizon. Many can be achieved relatively rapidly – think of the multitude of incremental innovative ideas submitted by Toyota's workers and employees that are rapidly implemented by management.

VB: Large companies have financial resources that allow them to employ a chief innovation officer. Do small companies need a similarly designated role, even if only as part of one person's job? Or are there better options for small to medium sized companies?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Many different mechanisms can be used to manage innovation. The concept of the CIO – the Chief Innovation Officer – is only one of them and, in my experience, a relatively complex one to put in place. It requires a uniquely qualified, high-level candidate who may be hard to find in most companies.

Smaller companies do not generally need that function because their management processes are simpler. They often delegate the innovation management task to one of their leaders – often the head of R&D technology-intensive companies.

What is important, though, is that management dedicates sufficient time, as a team, to its innovation agenda. In small companies, the whole management team should be involved. In larger companies, management will often prefer setting up a subset of their leadership group – call it an "innovation steering committee" or an "innovation board" – to manage innovation cross-functionally.

VB: You indicate that growing new products in mature markets through incremental product improvement usually yields a marginal growth benefit. You also indicate that a promising but challenging option is the creation of new business segments through totally new products. Nestle and Tetra Pak have both adopted this approach, which can be long and often erratic. Despite the challenges of this option you devote a chapter to it. Would you describe how a "chain of leadership" contributes to business success?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Major innovation projects generally require the involvement of leaders with different and complementary functional and business skills, as projects go from idea and technology development to product launch and deployment. Different types of leaders need to be involved at different stages in the process, while ensuring continued project integrity, hence this concept of "chain of leadership". It should be a "seamless chain of leadership" with involvement by these leaders throughout the process. Irrespective of whether they are technical, business or executive champions, they should ensure a maximum degree of integration and continuity.

Since radical innovation projects typically last many years, continuity over time is also essential as leaders come and go, and change jobs.

VB: Some senior executives might want to steer clear of personal involvement in long-cycle innovation projects, preferring to attend to more strategic imperatives. You advise they should understand that participating in innovation projects is as important as sitting on the boards of subsidiary companies. What benefits are derived from a senior executive's direct participation in long-cycle innovation projects?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Besides the fact that presiding over an innovation project is fun, it is also a unique learning experience for senior executives who tend to be removed from the reality of technology and market development challenges. In addition, participating in long-cycle innovation projects allows the creation of valuable personal bonds, across hierarchical lines, between these senior executives and their project teams.

VB: Financial analysts generally focus on a company's performance set against industry benchmarks, on a quarter by quarter basis. What are the problems with this approach?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: This approach encourages short-termism and is, therefore, completely detrimental to innovation, which should be judged only on a long-term perspective.

VB: You say the computer company, Logitech, uses many of the components and drivers of an innovation leadership environment. Adopting innovation-enhancing values takes time. What advice do you have for organizations that are keen to follow the lead of Logitech?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Innovation starts at the very top of the company with a commitment from the corporate leadership group to enhance innovation as a core growth driver, and to encourage the emergence of innovation leaders in all business units and corporate functions. If the top management team does not commit to a long-lasting effort to promote innovation, there is no point in trying to create an innovation leadership environment. If it does, then the issue is one of leadership, – promoting those executives and managers whose attitudes are likely to stimulate and support innovation. If there are not enough of them, bring them in from outside.

VB: Often it is difficult to identify the real drivers of innovation in a company. Some are intrinsic, like management's vision, attitudes, and processes. Others are extrinsic reflecting the competitive dynamics of the marketplace. In your extensive research did you find that the presence of innovation drivers is consistent with a healthy financial bottom line?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: It is quasi-impossible to directly relate innovation and financial performance, at least in the short-term, but innovation generally leads to a better chance to grow profitably.

The most potent force in favor of innovation is the combination of strong drivers, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic drivers like management vision, ambition and values are critical to fuel the enthusiasm of the staff. Extrinsic drivers like technology developments or competitive pressures are also important, particularly as antidotes to the natural tendency of any organization to relax when things go well.

VB: With an average life cycle of twelve to eighteen months for its products, Logitech generates more than 50% of its annual revenue from new products. How important is it for companies to embrace and use both internal and external sources of innovation in an environment where products have such short life cycles?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: For Logitech as for all technology-intensive companies subjected to intense competition and short life-cycles, speed and time-to-market are vital. Doing less by outsourcing parts of the development task and avoiding the need to re-invent the wheel is an essential condition for short lead-times.

VB: When describing Logitech's success you say humility is one of their core values. Would you elaborate? How does humility find room as part of a corporate culture?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Humility at Logitech comes from the attitude of the top management team. When the founder and former chairman, Daniel Borel, recognized that his career had been marked by successes but also by significant failures, he passed a strong message to his staff that success is only temporary.

Failure as a major source of learning is accepted by innovation leaders, but there cannot be any learning without humility. Humility in face of success and failure is likely to better prepare management for the uncertainties of competition.

Companies that reach a dominant position in their market can become arrogant and may ultimately experience humbling defeats.

VB: How important is passion in a leader? Can passion without discipline be counter-productive when it comes to innovation?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Passion is an essential component of innovation. Passion can be expressed differently by different leaders, but it is always a key source of energy. Passion is not incompatible with a certain amount of discipline.

The important thing is for management to keep a balance in the leadership team between the passionate, visionary idealists, who are capable of firing their staff with creative enthusiasm, and the sometimes equally passionate, but pragmatic realists, who will make sure projects are well executed and succeed in the market.

VB: Should one never declare victory in the implementation a major innovation until has been fully incorporated into the culture of the organization?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: For all the companies I know, innovation is a "work in progress"! As for any type of pursuit of excellence, victory is a banned word.

VB: You say that for innovation, as for many other important corporate challenges, isolated leaders are unlikely to be effective, that a minimum critical mass is necessary in order to influence the rest of the organization. Do you see a critical mass of innovation leaders in European companies?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Unfortunately, I haven't seen many European companies with what I would call a "critical mass" of innovation leaders. When that "critical mass" does exist, it is generally found in the technical domain, Research and Development, and engineering. It is a challenge for most companies to foster innovation leaders in all other parts and functions of the corporation.

VB: You indicate innovation leaders tend to have personalities others easily associate with innovation. You identify six attributes of an innovation leader. Is one of these attributes most important and why?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: When asked that question, most participants in my innovation courses, at IMD and elsewhere, answer "passion and tolerance for failure". These seem to be the two most popular attributes of innovation leaders.

VB: You say the right kind of innovation leader must be matched with the right innovation strategy. For example, the development of new or improved products or services may well require a different leader than would the creation of a totally new business system. What would be the desirable attributes of an innovation leader involved in the creation of a totally new business system?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: In my book, I equate those leaders involved in the creation of totally new business systems or models to "visionary but pragmatic architects". These leaders are capable of building and sharing their vision of a desirable new business system, master-planning its execution, and partnering with external forces to make it happen. In my experience, they are completely different from the leaders suitable for the development of "new or improved products or services", whom I equate with "tough sport team coaches" who endlessly challenge their teams, set goals and measure.

VB: Would you describe the importance of hiring for attitude when seeking innovation leaders?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: It is critical! Most companies look first for talent and experience. These are important, of course, but passion, attitude and mindset are what will ultimately distinguish innovation leaders from other types of leaders. I refer to my earlier description of "broad-bandwidth managers".

VB: What are the benefits of encouraging staff to make larger decisions, and ensuring they feel comfortable with the risks and challenges in their work?

Cover of Product JuggernaughtsJean-Philippe Deschamps: It makes people grow by stressing their sense of responsibility. It works only if coaching is provided to ensure that the nature of the decisions to be made, or the risks to be taken, are appropriate for the managers' maturity and skill levels.

VB: Based on your work with many organizations, how much effort is being directed towards attracting and retaining innovation leaders? Is financial compensation the most important incentive?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Since few companies seem to pay attention to their innovation leaders, except perhaps in R&D, I have not found that much effort is made to retain these leaders. Financial compensation is of course important, particularly in start-ups and in some cultures more than others.

The real incentive is the freedom to undertake cool projects in a can-do climate, and the excitement of being associated with a winning company.

VB: You indicate that the how to's of attracting, developing and keeping innovation leaders requires more research and tool development. Do you have work underway in this area?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Yes, to a certain extent, although my research is focusing more actively on innovation governance systems and mechanisms.

VB: you observed any interesting new trends in, or approaches to, innovation leadership that are unique to Europe?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: No! The body of knowledge on innovation seems to be pretty global. The difference is much more between types of companies, such as between family-owned and public corporations, than between regions – at least between the US and Europe. I suspect that the management attitude towards innovation in Taiwan, Korea and now China is quite different than in "old Europe", although the process and key success factors are likely identical.

VB: What still needs to be studied and learned about innovation and leadership?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: Almost everything! In my book, I have mapped an unexplored territory. Most of the facets of this leadership domain deserve to be further analyzed, detailed and understood.

VB: What projects are you currently working on? Can we anticipate another book soon?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: I am trying to understand how companies actually manage innovation, from a corporate governance point of view. What kinds of responsibilities do they assign? What kinds of mechanisms are they using? For the moment, it is not planned as a book project.

VB: there any other authors' books you would recommend on the topic of innovation?

Jean-Philippe Deschamps: I like particularly the book written by the brother of Ideo's founder, Tom Kelley – The Art of Innovation. It sounds real and comes from people who know what they are talking about… and practice it everyday!

Innovation leaders promote and support the innovation agenda of their companies. In Innovation Leaders Jean-Philippe Deschamps describes strategies to improve innovation in an organization, and he identifies the six attributes of an innovation leader. They are:

  1. a mix of emotion and realism, an unusual combination of creativity and process discipline,

  2. the acceptance of uncertainty, risks, and failure, coupled with a desire to ensure staff learn form them,

  3. a high degree of passion for their mission,

  4. the willingness to proactively search for external technologies and ideas and then to experiment with them,

  5. the courage to stop projects, not just to start them, and the flair to decide when to persist vs. when to pull the plug, and

  6. a talent for building and steering winning teams and a knack for attracting and retaining innovators.

Jean-Philippe Deschamps Bio:
Dr. Jean-Philippe Deschamps is an innovation management practitioner with forty years of international consulting experience. He is Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has also given lectures and seminars around the world.

Deschamps is author of Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation, and co-author of Product Juggernauts: How Companies Generate Streams of Market Winners.

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