Talk is fine, but who’s taking ownership?

By Natalie Turner, Author, Yes You Can Innovate

Who owns innovation in your company? Who do you call when you want to talk about innovation strategy and capability building? How often have you come across departments, not just for Brands, R&D or Product Development, but departments that are focused on what I call organisational innovation — building the capacities, skills and structures to help a whole company innovate?

It’s a question that usually receives a blank response. Yet, pick up any business magazine and you will invariably find multiple articles on the strategic importance of innovation for a company’s growth.

I have mulled over the question for a number of years, ever since I started the Entheo Network in 2006. Before that, I was an Innovation Director in a large research company responsible for working with big brands like Coca-Cola, American Express and Nokia to develop concepts for new products and services.

The lack of creative ideas and solutions was often not the problem. It was the lack of internal processes and culture that supported innovation that was missing.

It seemed obvious to me that the world of “what” an organisation creates — its products and services — and “how” it innovates — its skills, processes and capabilities — should be natural bedfellows.

If 72 per cent of CEOs are stating innovation as one of their top three priorities, then how come it is often such a random activity that everyone thinks it is owned by someone else?


Organisations that really want to drive innovation tackle this challenge differently. Sometimes, you will find an Innovation Department — an “incubator” style model — which is often largely tasked with generating new ideas separate from the larger organisational structure.

From my experience of working for and in corporate incubators, this is often the best place to safeguard the novelty of new ideas.

But what about the rest of the organisation that is doing “business as usual”? Is no innovation meant to come out of there?

We often look upon the children of Silicon Valley, the Facebooks and Googles of this world with envy as innovation seems so natural to the way they work. But what if you work for a large organisation and have legacy systems that are often hard to change?

One of the best and most ambitious examples I have come across, of a large organisation which went on the journey of transformation around an innovation agenda, is the story of white goods manufacturer Whirlpool.

Back in the 1990s, faced with increasing competition and pressure from shareholders, Whirlpool’s leaders created the vision of a business that would encourage “innovation from everyone, everywhere”.

This meant innovation across the board — products, customer touch points, business methods with suppliers and vendors as well as its overall strategic focus.

New ways of working included enrolling every salaried employee in an online course on business innovation, training 600 innovation mentors, setting aside a substantial share of capital spending every year for projects that were truly innovative, and requiring every product-development plan to contain a sizeable component of new-to-market innovation.

Also, one sure way to put innovation at the top of the agenda was to make it a large component of top management’s long-term bonus plan.


We often use this example as a case study in workshops to encourage participants to think through how Whirlpool made this transition and what they can learn and do differently in their own organisations.

This elicits a collective sigh of relief as, more often than not, they know they are unlikely to be the next Google, and to attempt to build a Google-style culture which has grown out of particular values and conditions would be a long road to frustration.

The Whirlpool story is compelling as it demonstrates that with the right strategic direction, commitment and resources, even large, often bureaucratic organisations can make innovation more than just a buzzword.

Some other strategies I have seen work in larger organisations are building Innovation Catalyst or Champion Communities, where a group of employees in their “day job” are also tasked with helping facilitate more innovation in the teams in which they work, cross-fertilising ideas and sharing knowledge across the company.

Others are starting to “professionalise” innovation by establishing clear ownership, thinking through how they can systematically build the right environment and processes to help ideas flourish.

However, even these types of initiatives require the proper structure, support and resources if they are going to be successful, as well as a curious blend of skills and experience that bring the world of organisational development and commercial strategy more tightly together.

One of the companies we work with is Singapore Airlines, and I must say, they are one of the few companies I have met where different parts of the organisation have come together to systematically think about how they innovate — the heads of HR, New Product Development and Research, as well as a number of other departmental heads. But this is rare.

Who owns innovation in your organisation?

It is not an easy question, but it requires careful consideration. If we are to move beyond simple rhetoric of wanting our organisations to be more innovative, towards building systemic and sustainable approaches, it needs someone to seriously commit to, champion and drive it, and not leave it to chance.


This article was written by Natalie Turner and originally published in Today Online on September 18th, 2013