Spend a Little, Learn a Lot, Change Direction

IdeaConnection interview with Bill Knowles, Training and Organizational Development Manager for Syngenta
By Alice Bumgarner
If you've bought flower seeds at Lowes, eaten a mini watermelon, or teed up on a weed-free golf course, you've probably benefited from Syngenta's work.

As a leading global agribusiness, with 24,000 worldwide employees, Syngenta makes crop-protection products (herbicides, insecticides, etc.), turf-care products, and field, crop, vegetable and flower seeds.

As a company that aims to raise the yield of worldwide crops, Syngenta is poised to make a significant impact on society. And Bill Knowles, as a manager coaching middle and senior managers, is poised to spread the gospel of innovation throughout the ranks.

Alice Bumgarner: What is the importance and the role of innovation in today's global economic environment?

photo of Bill KnowlesBill Knowles: When you say "innovation" to people on the street, they probably think about R&D people or scientists. They might think it's something you create in a garage and then milk for five years. But innovation is a repeatable process that you work into your job. You should also find innovation in the HR department and the mailroom. Innovation should be everywhere.

Alice Bumgarner: How is innovation reflected at your workplace?

Bill Knowles: We're in a high-tech environment. We have Nobel Prize winners working here. So coming up with creative ideas is not a problem. Implementing innovation into everyone's everyday work—that's a real discipline.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

Bill Knowles: About two years ago, I created a workshop whose purpose is to teach people how to make innovation part of the day-to-day process.

We looked at it the way you might look at communication skills: You could teach communication skills for weeks – presentation skills, letter-writing skills – but what part do you need?

It's the same thing with innovation. We realized we didn't need to teach the creativity part or teach management how to model it; we needed to teach day-to-day implementation. So we went after that. Through this workshop, I put a set of tools in place for Syngenta employees to be innovative every day.

What's exciting is that I get a phone call every week from people who've heard about the workshop and want to do it. The teams that have learned and applied the process well have started changing the way they do business.

b>AB: What is the most difficult problem you and/or your team have solved? Were there any surprises along the way?

Bill Knowles: My challenge is that I'd love to be rolling out this workshop faster to more people. But we can only teach 24 people at a time, and it's a large company.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Bill Knowles: One tool we recommend in the workshop is to apply common sense to the problem, prioritize, then test a prototype. Try it somewhere, on internal or external customers, and spend a small amount of money. Thinking your way through the entire problem may seem overwhelming.

Another thing that can help is observing customers. Find out what they're doing, what they're thinking, and what compensating behavior they're using to do what they need to do. Then you can figure, here's a product that needs to exist, because no product exists for their need. Procter & Gamble saw an opportunity for the Swiffer by observing.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Bill Knowles: The barriers here are the same as in every other big company. You have to have managers who will back innovation and who understand risk. You can't be innovative if there's no failure in your company. I'm not talking about big failures and spending tons of money, but about taking small steps, spending a little, learning a lot, and changing your direction.

Also, many companies don't know or stick to the 40/70 rule: If you have 40% or less of the information you need to make a decision, you probably shouldn't make it. If you have 70% or more, you need to ask yourself, "Why haven't I made a decision yet?"

There are exceptions, of course. You may need more than 70%, if making a mistake would bring your company to its knees. You may need less than 40% if you're an expert and see the same trends every time you're confronted with the same type of situation.

AB: What, if any, problem solving, creativity tools or innovation software do you use or are you familiar with?

Bill Knowles: We use tools from Clayton Christensen that are online as part of the Innosight course.

AB: What innovation methodologies, theories, and training do you use or recommend to others?

Bill Knowles: We use content from Clayton Christensen's book called "Innovator's Solution," and we're certified to teach it.

AB: Do your innovations come from inside the company, from consults or outside sources, or a combination of the two? How do outside consultants integrate and work with your in-house teams?

Bill Knowles: Both. We collaborate and work with other companies, and we also have work that is outsourced. Outside collaboration is just a way of life for us.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as IdeaConnection.com) that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation? What has been your experience with this type of collaboration?

Bill Knowles: Syngenta has been involved in those kinds of connections, and functions can decide whether they want to work like that or not.

That's one of the things, by the way, that allows for innovation within a company -- where there's freedom and no single way of doing things. One of the detriments to innovation is an extremely strong culture that says "It's gotta be this way."

AB: Are there any books on innovation that you recommend to others?

Bill Knowles: Three out of six of my bookshelves are about innovation. I especially know and like Christensen – he addresses the "how do you make it happen" angle. And Bob Sutton knows a heck of a lot about creativity and innovation.

AB: Any other thoughts you'd like to share about innovation?

Bill Knowles: The fact is that innovation is a mystery to most people in most companies. Once you understand it, you think, "What was so hard about that?"

Bill joined Syngenta in February 2001. He has designed and delivered workshops on innovation and design thinking for Syngenta since 2006.

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Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: [email protected]
Posted by Anumakonda Jagadeesh on November 7, 2012