Is innovation more about people or process?

It has been one of the fundamental questions in our field- and the answer is probably both, as outlined in this HBR article.

“People matter; process matters. Talented people can be hobbled by poor processes; hesitant people can be uplifted by smart processes. In the best of all possible worlds, extraordinary people pursue innovative ideas through processes that are perfectly suited to their talents. In the real world, less-than-perfect people are wise to use all the help they can get.”

So how do innovation leaders in the real world deal with this dilemma? We revisit three perspectives on what the human side vs. the infrastructural side of innovation can look like, through a trio of speaker highlights from Innov8rs Paris (April 2019).

They reach a complimentary conclusion on how neither side can be mutually exclusive, but they each achieve success by approaching the interplay from different angles and through different analogies.

How did they each find the right balance between discovering creative people, and funding creative ideas; between creating a culture, and building a solid process for innovators to follow?

Passion should underpin process

Astrid Froment, who leads Experimentation & New Business Acceleration at Pernod Ricard, shares her story at innov8rs Paris.

On her journey to drive innovation, Astrid has carried the corporation all the way from a broad mandate to revive their entrepreneurial spirit, to a fully-fledged program through which innovation accounts for one-third of Pernod Ricard’s topline.

Often, intrapreneurship programs are treated as a typical product – find a facility, inject cash, add people, set deadlines, launch and done. But she concludes that there needs to be more nuance than this, so as not to stifle rather than serve solutions to complex business problems.

With a background in marketing, Astrid first emphasizes the importance of building an emotional connection with potential and future intrapreneurs:

“Based on our need to jump forward, we called the program the Kangaroo Fund, or K Fund. It was really important we transmitted what this initiative was all about in the right way to the rest of the company – so we built a brand around launching something which stood out to our 18,000 employees… something different and disruptive, just like the ideas we wanted to receive from them, and the kind of people we wanted to get involved.”

Switching traditional corporate monochromes with bright colors, and opting for a playful animation instead of a stoic step-by-step video helped make the program application process inclusive and inspiring. It was designed to encourage intrapreneurs to think outside the box, consider unmet customer needs, and bring something new to the world of routine and process they were currently a part of.

But she also underscores the need to set parameters for people to perform at their best:

“Six months after I launched the fund, my budget was cut in half. This was when I thought ‘I either go for new methodologies and ways of working and make sure the company truly understands what I am doing, or we die.’”

In this case, constraints can breed creativity and set the guardrails and environment for testing, learning and optimizing ideas.

“I believe that we moved forward by getting less money.”

With more than enough resources available, intrapreneurs and their teams are tempted to develop beyond the minimum viable features, which become further away from the core development of the product. It gives teams too much legroom to stray from tight priorities, without the financial pressure to temperature-check findings and developments with customers.

“Equally, too much time kills momentum. We need phases to function: deadlines, follow-ups, milestones. In phase 2 of our program, we gave the applicants less time, and as a result, they were producing value in a much more agile way.”

This said, Astrid reiterates the importance of investing in people by facilitating workshops and coaching:

“Don’t underestimate the time and money needed to invest in the people behind the ideas.”

Your organization is an organism

Meanwhile, Sabrina Murphy, previously heading up intrapreneurship at BNP Paribas, and Olivier Leclerc of the Safran Group take a more clinical and symbiotic approach to the ‘people vs. process’ interplay.

Taking to the stage dressed as a General Practitioner and Cardiologist, Sabrina and Olivier emphasize the importance of treating the corporation first as an aching body, but with an aching heart.

“The GP addresses the body as a whole – giving an overall check of the inflexibility, pressure, processes and operational pains we see all the time”, explains Sabrina.

“Then, the Cardiologist listens to the heart of the organization: who are the people, and what is their purpose?”

Of course, you need a healthy body and as well as vital internal organs to survive. These two aspects work collectively and interactively to create a context for success.

They then asked: Who is the common denominator between body and heart, best positioned to connect the individual and the collective organization?

The answer? You bet, that’s HR. The operational or central HR function is the artery – the people who pump the rules and processes around the organizational body.

How long will an intrapreneur work on a project? Which recognition will they receive? How will they be integrated into various talent programs? HR both deals with the ‘how’ from an individual perspective, and creates the context for success which is replicable inside and throughout the company.

In a demonstration of how this approach is echoed and replicated throughout France’s corporate ecosystem and beyond, Sabrina and Olivier share several examples of how human resource checkpoints can form a pulse to drive intrapreneurial success.

“Media company TFR has created a charter, so that whenever intrapreneurs enter a program they must commit to the journey they are embarking on, and detach themselves to a certain degree from other core business activities. Here you can find various items about how time is spent, clarities in the hierarchy, and outlines on best and worst-case scenarios.”

A few companies have also built intrapreneurship into annual performance reviews. By simply adding a checkbox to recognize that someone has been engaged in intrapreneurial activities, this forms a small but significant way to incentivize the behaviors and actions associated with innovation.

“The French Ministry of Economy and Finance has also started a lab to ask themselves the question; ‘how can public entities assimilate intrapreneurs in organizations?”, Oliviers adds.

“They gathered together people who focus on intrapreneurship and considered different topics, including whether they should create a certification for organizations that are intra-friendly. Can we create KPIs for intrapreneurship in general? Should we have a specific status for employees who behave as intrapreneurs, or should it be standardized?”

With these kinds of frameworks in place, criteria for intrapreneurs will inevitably become more concrete. If public entities turn intrapreneurship into a label, then this is a status that needs to be auditable and scalable – before addressing, and in order to address matters of the heart.

Create change from inside a control function

Danielle Winandy of BNP Paribas was one who contributed to the French Ministry’s call to create a recognized intrapreneurial status – but from inside an organizational function typically seen as antithetical to, or mutually incompatible with innovation – Risk.

As a serial intrapreneur, Danielle received a call one day from a board member, asking her to join him within a control function which seemed oppositional to her goals. Her first task? To create a report on risks linked to innovation:

“So coming from a part of the business where they believe that control functions such as Risk, Compliance and Legal are blockers for autonomy and stop the company from advancing, how could I turn this into something good?

In fact, I found amazing people there, who were willing and ready to innovate – and there was a huge potential to move the needle.”

By building a report around ‘how functions can better support innovators’, Danielle was able to create a synergy between two organizational camps which had typically been in flux, when they should have been working in tandem. It’s the old story of unintended consequences: the more complex the system an innovation enters, the more likely and severe those consequences will be.

Indeed, many of the risks associated with innovation stem not from the innovation itself, but from the infrastructure into which it’s introduced.

This meant that simplifying existing governance could reduce the trade-off between risk and return, and make life much easier in the following ways.

  • Simplifying start-up engagement: designing a startup engagement kit covering everything from compliance to the dos and don’t of pre-approving contracts and risk management, innovation teams could leapfrog the hurdles and reduce time-to-contract
  • Bridging the gap between process and practice: the team worked to make promise and reality match through clear group guidelines which focused on changing parameters, such as the shifting relationship between startups, intrapreneurs, and third parties
  • Understanding the difference between primary and secondary risks: New players, technologies and ways of working are different to exposing risks that are already there – for example dealing with an external party gives rise to a question of how Intellectual Property is handled.
  • Quantifying the cost of inaction: what would standing still mean for the bottom-line? What were the risks of not innovating?

So perhaps it’s time to stop asking the million-dollar question, ‘people or process?’. People matter; process matters, and innovation cannot come to life in corporations without one or the other.

Whether our intrapreneurial endeavors are approached from person-to-process, process-to-person, or from some measure of both simultaneously, the fact still remains: we’re only human, meaning we’re uncomfortable with the unknown; we feel paralyzed in the face of unprecedented change.

We need to dare to be difference-makers and go against the corporate immune system – but in doing so, we need all the human help we can get.