Can a big, traditional, multinational corporation unlock its entrepreneurial spirit?

With Louise Kyhl Triolo overseeing arguably one of the boldest corporate innovation initiatives, Airbus has managed to do just that.

In Paris, she will discuss how the pursuit of purpose and dreaming big can get even a traditional command and control environment to experiment with the unknown and explore the possibilities of the future.

We sat down with Louise to get a sneak peak of her Paris talk.

Recently, many are asking – what’s the role of HR in innovation? As one of the pioneers in this field, how did you start?

It started with an HR pioneering experience in the Silicon Valley. Airbus has been one of the first big companies going to Silicon Valley not only to open up an Innovation Center and a Corporate Venture fund, but also to have an HR person help establish new ways of working and set up a Leadership University for North America to drive change through leaders. And I was that HR person, responsible for testing and bringing disruptive innovation to our HR processes, development paths and overall culture.

To help us learn, we partnered with Singularity University, the X-Prize, and Deloitte in a program called The Innovation Partnership Program. It was totally eye-opening for me, and in particular I was inspired by a specific story about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

X-Prize put out the Oil Spill challenge because no one up to that point had been able to find a solution to clean up the oil from the sea. So, they opened-sourced problem solving on a global stage and ended up finding this tattoo artist from a small town who was passionate about preserving the marine ecosystem and who came up with an idea to clean up the oil and ended up a finalist.

Airbus has big challenges (like any other legacy company in this rapidly changing world), so I thought: why don’t we tap into our own talent and our own collective intelligence to come up with solutions for the future and inspire everybody to help us shape what Airbus can be tomorrow?

And that was what sparked the beginning of Dream Big – which became a huge innovation mobilization and transformation initiative. Much more than an ideation contest, it was a vision. We wanted to make this something that is truly about the culture shift that needs to happen within Airbus. We wanted a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down, we wanted learning, we wanted to inspire, we wanted ‘making’, we wanted to accelerate our transformation… and we wanted to be truly neutral and agnostic to functions, departments and hierarchies, creating a platform where people could express their ideas and we could create a new community of intrapreneurs.

So, I started a small team, made up of the thinkers within the organization who had that kind of innovation mindset already, and together we designed our dream for Airbus.

Tell us more about the design of the Dream Big program

We designed it as an incentive challenge, where the winning finalists would win the chance to be inspired, learn, innovate together and work on their ideas in a three months incubation process. We launched the challenge in 2017 and received 700 ideas in the form of short videos. We watched them all, and selected 150 winners that went to a summit in November of 2017.

From there on we weren’t just dreaming, we were making things happen. We had three final grand prize winners that came out of that summit and these teams won a learning trip to Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Shenzhen. After this trip, they incubated together in one of our labs for three months. Next, they pitched to our top management and CEO in July of last year and one of the teams got immediate investment to proceed and create an internal moonshot startup for Airbus.

And that was just the first round. We started with only three small teams and now we’re figuring out how we carry on with this; how do we do another one?

How have the results been perceived by the rest of the business?

In terms of results, I think there are many different components. Of course, one of them is the acceleration of the moonshot that got investment- we’ll see what that brings in the future.

Then there are the other two moonshots that were not selected for investment yet. Some of the people are still so passionate about it, they’re carrying on with some of the ideas and to find sponsorship for them. As for the other moonshot ideas, some of them have continued and others have not; we’re still trying to figure out what we can get out of those.

I think one of the biggest and best outcomes of this whole initiative is definitely the energy that it’s instigated within our group and our employees. It created a different kind of outlook, a new language and permission to dream.

It’s the first time that we’ve actually positioned ourselves to think bigger than just the next aircraft, helicopter, rocket, or satellite but to really think about what Airbus is in the world and what impact we can have to make this world a better place. That, for me is a massive outcome, having brought that big thinking to life and the energy and the hope that it has generated within the organization.

Another outcome is that we’ve built a new culture where intrapreneurship is top-of-mind and has become part of our overall strategy now. There are more and more initiatives popping up on that topic alone, so it has brought that as well.

What’s your take on the role of HR in innovation?

I think HR is an overlooked part of many organizations when it comes to driving innovation. HR is not a ‘separate’ function, it is an instigator, creator and enabling bridge between people, business and innovation. The glue that holds the organization together and that enables growth, creativity, human value and ultimately innovation to flourish.

The people development function in particular should definitely have a seat at the innovation table, as innovation is, for me, all about developing the right culture to enable creative thought and action to happen. There are generally a lot of people with that forward-thinking growth mindset needed to instigate that kind of culture within the people development function, and we reach all functions across the business.

Essentially, we work on people’s behaviors and practices, and help people grow, and our leaders grow. And that’s key in any innovation and transformation initiative.